By BROOKE KANSIER
Capital News Service
LANSING — Proposed legislation requiring school districts to publicize their vaccination rates will help parents make better health choices and might improve vaccination education, the bill’s sponsor said.
Introduced earlier this year, the bill package would require schools to post vaccination rates, which are already reported to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, in school offices or on their websites.
State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, said his legislation would provide parents more information when picking a school for their child.
“Those kids, and those parents, have a right to make an educated choice,” Hertel said. “If you have a child that’s going to treatment and chemotherapy and can’t get a vaccine, why would you want to send them to a school that is below herd immunity?” Hertel said.
Herd immunity is the threshold of vaccination needed to protect even people who are not vaccinated. Many Michigan schools have already lost or are in danger of losing it, according to state health statistics.
The benchmark for herd immunity is 93 percent of people vaccinated, but many Michigan districts have rates as low as 75 or 80 percent, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Hertel said low vaccination rates are dangerous not only to children whose parents opt out of vaccines, but especially to children in the community with immune disorders, vaccine allergies, or those undergoing chemotherapy, who can face serious side effects or death from the preventable diseases.
“I have four kids, they’re all vaccinated. I don’t worry about the vaccination rates in their school,” Hertel said. “But if one of my children fell into one of those categories, I would certainly be concerned.”
While immunizations for contagious diseases such as whooping cough and measles are supposed to be mandatory for children to attend school, parents can opt out of these vaccinations by signing a waiver.
Some seek waivers because the vaccinations are forbidden under their religion, but the overwhelming majority are “philosophically” opposed.
According to Hertel, this is largely due to misinformation about vaccines.
“The internet is a wonderful thing in it provides a lot of information, but it also provides anybody the ability to present misinformation,” Hertel said. “We have a large education problem here.”
While making parents more aware of the vaccination rates of their schools is important, another impact Hertel expects is for the legislation is to encourage schools with low rates to improve them and to educate families.
Schools with low rates can use “community nights” to educate parents on vaccines, and partner with their local health department to improve numbers, Hertel said. For Grand Rapids Public Schools, this has been a success.
Laura Martzke, nursing supervisor at Grand Rapids Public Schools, said her district’s vaccination rate of 99 percent is the result of school nurses and community health workers educating parents on the issue. The district uses back-to-school nights and kindergarten round-up events to talk about many issues, including immunizations and other health-related subjects.
“As nurses who see preschool-aged children, utilizing the opportunity to educate young parents about the need to immunize children for their protection is a high priority,” Martzke said.
The Public Schools of Petoskey has begun to employ similar policies, said Superintendent John Scholten. One of the most valuable tools for the district, whose average vaccination rate is 84 percent, is a partnership with Petoskey’s local health department, he said.
“I like the idea that we’re working hand in hand,” he said. “Just like anything, if you’re trying to influence or educate, I think the more angles you can bring it from, the more effective it’ll be.”
While some may question whether pushing vaccinations and even posting their rates in general should be issues pushed onto schools, Scholten argues that schools are “gatekeepers,” and should do what they can to educate parents, although he also said the school’s job should not be to push vaccinations on parents.
“We’ll do our best to educate … but I’m not sure we’re in a position to try to influence or try to force parents to go one way or another,” Scholten said. He thinks the health department should be pushing vaccinations, not schools.
Hertel’s bills were referred to the Senate’s Education Committee and Committee on Families, Seniors, and Human Services on April 14. They have not been put to a vote.
“I’m not saying that this is the only step we need to take,” Hertel said. “But this is a good step.”
By BROOKE KANSIER