Stricter policies are reducing the number of vaccination waivers in local school districts, officials believe.
The vaccination waiver rate in Rock County schools dropped to 6 percent this year, the lowest since the 2012-13 school year, said Dave Pluymers, associate health director for the Rock County Public Health Department.
Waivers in the Janesville School District have dropped each of the last five school years. This year, the district accepted 801 vaccination waivers. In 2015-16, the district accepted 1,662, according to data provided by the district.
The decline is likely because of recent efforts by the county health department to reduce the number of waivers given to parents as a convenience, Pluymers said.
Some parents found it easier to turn in waivers than to obtain their children’s medical records, Pluymers said.
It is important for the health department to have accurate vaccination data so the department can monitor herd immunity, Pluymers said.
Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient portion of a population is immune to an infectious disease, making spread of the disease unlikely, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The nursing staff in the Janesville School District over the last two years has focused on encouraging parents to vaccinate their children, Kimberli Peerenboom, director of pupil services, said in an email to The Gazette.
The district no longer offers waivers to families who are behind on vaccinations, Peerenboom said.
Waivers are offered only by parental request or after a conversation between nursing staff and parents, Peerenboom said.
The number of waivers in the Milton School District is higher now than five years ago.
While the number of personal waivers have increased in Milton, so has immunization compliance, said Erin Henning-Kotthaus, Milton school district nurse.
Some families require additional time to get immunizations and often choose to sign a personal waiver. Once the student receives the immunizations, the waiver is discontinued, Henning-Kotthaus said.
“It continues to be a personal choice whether families choose actual immunization compliance or compliance via personal conviction waiver,” Henning-Kotthaus said in a statement to The Gazette.
Immunization rates do not have to drop extremely low for a community to have a major health problem, Pluymers said. It takes only one infected person to spread the disease to others who are not inoculated.
Immunization protects not only the immunized individual but also the community around them, Pluymers said.
Wisconsin is one of 17 states that allows immunization exemptions for personal reasons, according to a 2019 report published by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
An outbreak of measles was reported this year in Washington, a state that also allows personal exemptions. In Clark County, Washington, the center of the outbreak, the vaccination rate is 78 percent with some schools having lower than 40 percent vaccination rates, according to a report from National Public Radio.
Students in Wisconsin can waive vaccinations for religious, personal or health reasons.
Some kids cannot be vaccinated because of medical reasons such as an autoimmune disease or a compromised immune system, Pluymers said.
Vaccinating school-aged children is only part of a broader effort, Pluymers said.
The health department is forming a coalition to address immunization rates for everyone, including adults and infants, Pluymers said.
Immunization rates in Rock County for nearly every recommended vaccination fell from 2013 to 2017, according to the Wisconsin Immunization Program.
The coalition will bring together public health officials, health system professionals, pharmacists and other members of the community to promote immunization.