Last week, two news stories — one from Washington state and one international — carried the same important message: Communities are better off when people are fully vaccinated.
Close to home, Clark County, Washington, has declared a public health emergency amid a measles outbreak there. As of Monday, 22 people were infected, 19 of them unvaccinated and 17 of them between ages 1 and 10. More cases are likely.
The list of public exposure locations listed on Clark County’s public health website reads like a litany of everyday life: schools, clinics, at Trailblazers’ game.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently released its annual list of 10 top health threats. It is a sobering compilation, including air pollution and climate change, antimicrobial resistance and a global influenza pandemic. Also making the list is “vaccine hesitancy,” the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines. Two to 3 million deaths a year are prevented through vaccination, according to WHO, and 1.5 million deaths could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.
The same report notes that globally, measles’ occurrence has increased globally by 30 percent. While that increase is not due entirely to vaccine hesitancy, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease are seeing it again.
These are important stories for Vashon, which is known for its low vaccination rates, to pay attention to. Some local health officials have cautioned for years that we are at risk of an outbreak of serious illnesses, such as whooping cough or measles.
At the Vashon Island School District, nurse Sarah Day says that among the three district schools, 92 percent of students have had the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine series. She called that overall rate “fairly decent” coverage, noting that she would like to see it be a few points higher, as a 90 to 95 percent vaccination rate is needed for protective “herd immunity.”
For pertussis, also a highly infectious disease, the vaccination rate in the three schools is 91 percent, short of the 95 percent rate needed for herd immunity. At FamilyLink and StudentLink, however, the rate is 79 percent.
Vashon has made progress over the years on its vaccination rates. In 2013, for example, public school students’ vaccination rate against measles was just 84 percent; by 2016, it had climbed to 91 percent. Similarly, in 2016, 88 percent of students were vaccinated against pertussis, but up markedly from 67 percent in 2012 and 85 percent in 2009.
Still, as Day pointed out, we have a ways to go, and more improvement is needed. And the consequences of many vaccine-preventable illnesses are serious and include hospitializations and death.
As we move deeper into 2019, we are aware that we have little control over many of the health threats on WHO’s list, but “vaccine hesitancy” is well within our control to eradicate, at least on Vashon.