Marin officials urge parents to vaccinate: ‘A real concern is schools with rates less than 50%’

As measles cases increase across the country, Marin County health officials are encouraging parents at public and private schools to get unvaccinated children their measles immunization as soon as possible.

The Marin Department of Health and Human Services sent a letter to schools last week to distribute to families. It outlines what may happen to an unvaccinated child if a measles case is reported in their school.

“If your child is unvaccinated or cannot provide laboratory confirmation of immunity and there is a case in their school, they will be excluded from attending school for 21 days to protect themselves and to limit further spread of disease,” the letter reads.

Across Marin County, the rate of students receiving all five required immunizations for kindergarten is high, at 94 percent. It’s only 1 percent less than the statewide rate of 95 percent. But there are a handful of schools with rates less than 50 percent, and Matt Willis, the county’s public health officer, warns this makes the community vulnerable.

At the Marin Waldorf School in San Rafael, only 22 percent of its 36 students have received all required immunizations; 64 percent have been vaccinated for measles. It has the lowest overall immunization rate in the nine-county Bay Area, and it’s among the lowest in the state.

At Ross Valley Charter in Fairfax, 56 percent are fully vaccinated and 78 percent immunized for measles, and at Bolinas-Stinson Elementary School, 76 percent are fully vaccinated and 95 percent have received the measles shot.

“I think a real concern is schools with rates less than 50 percent,” said Willis. “You’re not only looking at a threat to the children’s academic experience, we’re also talking about the school itself. It’s possible the school itself wouldn’t be able to function with a measles outbreak.”

Willis added, “In places with low vaccination rates, it’s more likely for a case to appear and we see a rapid spread.”

ALSO: At these 7 Bay Area schools, more than half of the students are unvaccinated

Incoming kindergartners at private and public schools are required to get five vaccinations, including the MMR (Measles-Mumps-Rubella) vaccine before starting school, but some parents choose not to immunize. Some believe the shots cause adverse side effects, even though medical research shows vaccines are generally very safe. Federal guidelines say children should only avoid vaccinations if they have a severe allergic reaction or impaired immunity such as from a liver problem, the HIV virus or chemotherapy; less than 1 percent of children fall into that category.

In the past, California parents could fairly easily opt out of vaccinations, but in 2016 the state ended non-medical immunization exemptions. As a result, statewide kindergarten immunization rates increased to more than 95 percent in 2017-18 school year.

Parents can still obtain exemptions through doctors who examine the child and send the state health department the reason they are recommending the exemption.

Health officials say the rate of medical exemptions has also tripled in recent years. It is still less than 1 percent of school children statewide, but dozens of schools have exemption rates of at least 15 percent.

Health officials say low immunization rates are problematic because the nation’s health depends on a concept known as herd immunity. The medical community pushes to vaccinate as many people as possible to prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases and to create a situation where those few people who can’t be vaccinated — because they’re too young or their immune systems are compromised — are protected by those who are immune. When the vaccine rate drops below a certain threshold, the herd becomes vulnerable.

In California, even medical exemptions are under fire as the state experiences a measles outbreak.

“As of last week, there have been 38 cases in California and over 700 cases in the U.S. in 2019,” reads the letter to parents from the Marin Department of Health and Human Services. “This is the highest number of cases since measles was nearly eliminated in 2000.”

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