Insight & Analysis / Back to School, Back to Immunizations
For parents sending their kids off to kindergarten, back-to-school preparation involves more than new backpacks and sharpened pencils. For many families, it’s also time for vaccinations. But in Colorado, more so than in most other states, kids aren’t always vaccinated.
Colorado’s high rate of non-vaccination among children enrolled in public schools stands out. With 15 percent of kindergarteners skipping at least one vaccination in the 2012 school year, Colorado ranks sixth in the nation for the highest rate of unvaccinated kindergarteners in public schools.
Here are some quick facts from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Among vaccination coverage data reported from the 2012-13 school year, Colorado’s kindergarteners’ vaccination rates lie at the lowest end of the national spectrum for the three vaccinations required by the CDC – 2 doses for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), diphtheria (DTaP) and 2 doses for Varicella.
- In Colorado, 4.3 percent – or approximately 3,000 kindergarteners – were not fully vaccinated at the start of the school year due to exemptions.
- Colorado has the sixth highest rate of exemption from vaccinations among kindergarteners entering public schools. Oregon ranks No. 1 for exemptions.
- Personal belief exemptions account for more than 90 percent of all immunization exemptions among Colorado’s kindergarteners between 2003 and 2012. The rest of the exemptions were either religion-based or medical exemptions.
- While Colorado’s 4.3 percent total exemption rate is high compared to most other states, it fell from 5.6 percent in the 2011-12 school year.
Childhood vaccinations are a controversial subject in Colorado and across the nation. During the 2014 legislative session, state representatives aiming to improve Colorado’s vaccination rate introduced HB 14-1288. The proposed law would have required parents to take an online course or obtain a health provider’s signature in order to claim a personal belief exemption. The intent was to ensure that parents understood the risks and benefits, to the child and the community, of not being vaccinated. A personal belief exemption requires parents to declare they do not want to vaccinate their child, as opposed to declaring a religious opposition.
The opposition focused on fears that immunizations may lead to health problems in children. In addition, opponents said the law would burden parents, impose judgment on parents’ beliefs or single them out for harassment, or violate a child’s medical privacy.
Following heated floor debate and public outcry, the bill was amended to focus on data collection surrounding immunization rather than exemptions. Under the new law, which removed the higher requirements for obtaining personal belief exemptions, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) is required to publicly report on school immunization rates across the state.
Public health studies indicate that more parents file personal belief exemptions, rather than vaccinate their children, when exemption processes, including necessary paperwork, are less complex. Since 2009, 18 states have introduced 36 different immunization exemption bills, some easing exemptions, others making them harder to obtain. Efforts to toughen exemptions have passed in Washington, California and Vermont. Other states are looking to education-based efforts to encourage vaccination.