Vaccination rates reverse trend, with help from new law

May 17, 2012

The percentage of kindergartners in Washington who are fully vaccinated has gone up slightly, since a new law took effect making it harder to opt-out.

A change in state law took effect last July, requiring parents who want to exempt their kids from one or more vaccines to first hear from a doctor or nurse about the risks and benefits.

Michele Roberts, of the Washington Department of Health's immunization program, says some people doubted the law was strict enough to make a difference.  

"We didn’t take away an exemption. Parents can still get a philosophical exemption if they want to. A provider is just making sure they give that family information before they sign off on it. It’s still a parent choice," she says.

The first set of data from school districts shows the percentage of kindergartners with exemptions dropped from 6% to 4.5%. That's not dramatic, but it’s likely to drop further next year, because the law took effect after many kids were already registered for kindergarten. 

Washington's law is being watched in other states, such as Vermont and California, as a possible model for tightening their own rules, without taking draconian steps.

Has the anti-vaccine movement peaked?

Overall, the anti-vaccine movement may have peaked back in 2008. Since then, the DOH report shows vaccine rates have been climbing slowly but steadily -- from a low of 78.5% fully vaccinated, to 84.6% today. This is back in the range that was typical in Washington from 2002-2006.

That may be because concerns about a link to autism were debunked more convincingly, or because of publicity campaigns about the benefits of vaccines, says Roberts.

You can still find communities across the state where vaccine exemptions are common.