Vaccine opt-out rates can mislead

MOUNT DESERT — The 22.2 percent of this year’s kindergarten students at Mount Desert Elementary School whose parents chose not to have them vaccinated against infectious diseases is more than three times the state average of 6.2 percent.

But with a kindergarten class of 18 students, that means that just four students opted out.

Two of 14 kindergarten students at Trenton Elementary (14.3 percent) were not vaccinated. The opt-out rate was 7.1 percent (one of 14 students) at Pemetic Elementary in Southwest Harbor and 6.3 percent (one of 16) at Tremont Consolidated School.

Those statistics are from the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s 2018-2019 report on statewide vaccination rates, which was issued in February.

Vaccination data for Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor, the largest K-8 school in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, was not available for inclusion in the report.

Seventh-grade students must be vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis and meningitis.

The 2018-2019 vaccination opt-out rate among 13,444 seventh-graders statewide was 4.7 percent. The exemption rate was 31.8 percent among the 22 seventh-grade students at Mount Desert, 15.8 percent among the 19 at Pemetic and zero among both the 14 at Tremont and 16 at Trenton.

At all four of the MDIRSS schools included in the state report, the number of students in each grade is so small that each one who isn’t vaccinated represents a difference of several percentage points.

The Legislature is expected to give final approval any day now to a bill that would eliminate all vaccination exemptions except for medical reasons starting in 2021, and Gov. Janet Mills has said she would sign it.

As of now, however, the state allows parents to claim immunization exemptions for their children for medical, religious or philosophical reasons. Otherwise, all kindergarten children are required to be immunized against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), polio, measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox.

At Mount Desert, Pemetic and Tremont, the parents of all of the kindergarten children who weren’t vaccinated claimed the exemption on philosophical grounds. At Trenton, the parents of one unvaccinated child cited philosophical objections; the other family claimed a medical exemption.

As for seventh-grade students, all of those who opted out claimed the philosophical exemption.

Wanda Fernald, health teacher and school nurse at Mount Desert Elementary, said it is important that as many students as possible be vaccinated, particularly for the protection of those with weakened immune systems.

“Even though you might have a child vaccinated, if they are immuno-compromised and their vaccine didn’t take, it’s better to have people around them who are vaccinated,” she said.

Holly Cozzi-Burr, the nurse at Mount Desert Island High School, said the rate of immunizations among students entering high school has remained about the same for the past several years.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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