Alameda County works to improve vaccination rates

(queensu/Flickr)

This piece originally appeared on KQED's State of Health.

As we reported on Friday, kids without all their vaccinations are falling through the cracks at schools across California.

Over 80 percent of kindergarteners at some Oakland schools entered this year without all of their state-required vaccinations. At some Los Angeles Unified schools, the numbers top 90 percent.

It seems everyone has been focused on parents who opt out of vaccinations for their kindergarteners. But, there are thousands of under-vaccinated students who may also be walking school halls for months, maybe even the whole school year, without all their shots.

“Maybe it’s just not as sexy as Personal Belief Exemptions,” Amy Pine told  me. She directs the Immunization Program for the Alameda County Public Health Department.

Not sexy, maybe, but important.

“Under-vaccinated is still making you vulnerable for disease, for getting the disease and for transmitting the disease,” Pine said.

These students enter kindergarten on a “conditional basis,” with some, but not all of their required shots. The condition is that they’ll get up to date when those shots come due.

The problem is, it’s nearly impossible to tell if this ever happens. State and County health officials told me it’s up to the schools to keep track. But, there is no official reporting required by schools after they submit their vaccination rates to the state in the fall. The schools are the ones charged with sending notices to parents and excluding kids from school who don’t get up to date within 10 days of those notifications.

There may be a perverse incentive to keep kids out of school. After all, several school nurses mentioned that schools get paid by how many kids are in school each day.

“In general, we have not made a practice of turning students away,” said Troy Flint, spokesperson for Oakland Unified. The Los Angeles Unified School District also said they didn’t keep any “conditional entrants” out of school last year for failing to get the rest of their shots.

Los Angeles Unified also did not know how many of their “conditional entrants” ended up fully vaccinated by the end of the 2013 - 2014 school year.

Statewide, 6.86 percent of kindergarteners entered conditionally this year.

And, it’s not LA County (with a rate of 12.28 percent) nor even San Francisco (with a rate of 11.62 percent) that is taking big steps to curb this problem. It’s Alameda County officials who say their rate of 9.68 must be fixed.

“We have a conditional entrant problem here,” insisted Pine.. “They’re not immunized. They’re not protected.”

Together with Dr. Kristen Lum, a pediatric resident at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, Pine visited Alameda County schools this fall with chronically high rates of “conditional” entrants. Pine and Lum have made recommendations to the schools, to Oakland Unified School District, to the county and to the state. They hope their recommendations will improve tracking of “conditional entrants,” and ultimately, immunization rates statewide.

Alameda County’s commitment comes at a critical time in California, as measles cases have topped 91 (as of Friday) and the 2014 statewide pertussis (whooping cough) epidemic left two infants dead and 10,831 reported cases.

A child could be under-vaccinated for a number of reasons, including lack of training or personnel resources for school staff charged with tracking students; families moving in and out of care; or parents who are unable to get a child to the doctor in time.

Pine hopes that her team can change some of this.

“There’s nothing like an outbreak to remind people about the importance of getting vaccinated,” she said. “Unfortunately it has to come to an outbreak or a vaccine shortage to get people lined up.”

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Lauren M. Whaley

Freelance journalist Lauren M. Whaley is a photographer, radio producer and print reporter specializing in topics related to mental illness, reproductive health care and health disparities. She is also a childbirth photographer.This year, She is working on a series about how low-income parents access care for perinatal mental illnesses. The project is funded in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism.She was a 2016-17 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.Her work has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Scripps Howard Foundation and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) STEM story project. She has contributed radio, video, photography and written stories to KQED Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, the San Jose Mercury News, the New York Times and other media outlets. For six years, she worked as the Center for Health Reporting's multimedia journalist. She is a past president of the national organizationJournalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) and spent her early 20s leading canoe expeditions for young women, including a solo-led 45-trip in the Canadian Arctic. She is based in Los Angeles.

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