By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
State health officials are looking for new ways to boost Arizona’s sagging rate of vaccination of children after scrapping a pilot program aimed at parents who opted their youngsters out.
The program was aimed at reducing the exemption rate among children for vaccines. Many parts of south and east Gilbert are among those in Arizona with an exemption rate of as much as 20 percent – the highest in the state.
That program asked parents to view videos about the need for widespread immunization, both for their own children as well as others who, for various medical and religious reasons, cannot get vaccinated.
But some parents complained to the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council that they feared what was for now an option to view the videos could be made a requirement for parents who oppose vaccinations.
Colby Bower, the department’s assistant director, told Capitol Media Services that the now-abandoned pilot program was not part of the rules under review – or even under the purview of the council. And he said the decision was made to scrap the pilot program because it didn’t work.
In a blog post Tuesday, Health Director Cara Christ said that among half the elementary schools where the video was shown to parents who did not want immunizations for their children, there actually was a slight increase in the number of exemptions requested. Conversely, in half of the schools where there was no video, there actually was a slight decrease in exemptions.
“Unfortunately, these weren’t the results we were hoping to see,’’ she said.
So what’s next?
“It’s time to reevaluate and readjust and figure out how we can move the needle,’’ Bower said.
That “needle’’ is the percent of children who start school with the legally required vaccinations. The reason that compliance is not 100 percent is Arizona law allows parents to refuse to go along, whether for religious or personal reasons.
What has caused concern is that in the 2016-2017 school year, 4.9 percent of parents of students entering kindergarten opted out of immunization for personal reasons. That is on top of 0.3 percent seeking a medical exemption.
The most recent data available for the 2017-2018 school year found that the personal noncompliance rate hit 5.4 percent, with a 0.7 percent medical exemption. And among those in child care, non-immunization for personal reasons went from 3.9 percent to 4.3 percent.
All that is significant because, in general, state health officials say it takes about a 95 percent vaccination rate to create “herd immunity.’’ That’s where enough people are immunized against the disease to prevent it from spreading widely into those who cannot be vaccinated for things like medical and religious reasons.
State health officials figure that the failure to achieve herd immunity for just youngsters in kindergarten would mean about 5,000 statewide would be at risk for just measles, one of the diseases now in the list of mandatory vaccinations. Other in the immunization list include polio, chickenpox, hepatitis B and diphtheria.
Under the pilot program, any parent seeking an exemption viewed an “introductory’’ online module about vaccinations. Then, depending on which of the multiple vaccines on the mandatory list they did not want, there were separate modules.
After viewing the applicable modules, parents were able to print the forms seeking each vaccination exemption to return to the school.
But department spokeswoman Melissa Blasius-Nuanez said the program was voluntary: Parents who did not want to view the videos were still given access to the exemption forms.
In her blog post Tuesday, Christ said alternatives are being planned.
One option, she said, is making the course into educational videos available to all and not specifically targeting parents who want to opt out of vaccinations. There’s also the idea to have the program target all parents at schools with the highest percentage of children who are granted personal exemptions from immunization.
A 2013 University of Arizona study cited by the health department found that the highest opt-out rates tended to occur in schools with mostly Anglo students – and, in particular, those in more affluent areas.
Bower said the reaction from parents to the pilot program was in some ways expected.
“Whenever we do anything with vaccines, there’s always pushback,’’ he said.