Markian Hawryluk
The Bulletin

Four years ago, Oregon passed a new law intended to reduce nonmedical vaccine exemption rates, requiring parents who wanted to opt out of vaccinations for their children to watch a 10-minute educational video. The statewide exemption rate dropped that year from 7 percent of kindergartners in 2014 to 5.8 percent in 2015, but has crept back up.

New data released Tuesday by Oregon Public Health showed the exemption rate reached 7.5 percent in 2018, surpassing the rate from before the law was passed.

“By far most parents are choosing to fully immunize their kids,” said Stacy de Assis Matthews, immunization school law coordinator with the Oregon Immunization Program. “But we are concerned that we’re seeing this slow increase in the exemption rates.”

Rates of nonmedical exemption — when parents claim a religious or philosophical objection to vaccinating their children — for all grades varied from 10 percent in Josephine County to 1 percent in Morrow County, according to the data released Tuesday. Deschutes County had the fourth-highest rate of nonmedical exemptions among Oregon counties, with 7.5 percent of all students, and 11.6 percent of kindergartners, not fully vaccinated. Crook and Jefferson Counties were both well below the state average.

“Even more concerning is when you look at the individual school rates,” Matthews said, “because there we see pockets where some schools are highly vaccinated, but other schools are highly unvaccinated for certain very contagious diseases like measles.”

In Deschutes County, 12 schools had exemption rates of 10 percent or higher, and all 12 were either charter, magnet or private schools. Bridge Charter Academy had the highest exemption rate at 30 percent, followed closely by Waldorf School of Bend.

“So our concern would be a case of one of those diseases coming into one of those vulnerable populations and turning it into an outbreak,” she said.

Oregon state law requires that children who attend public or private schools be vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, chickenpox, measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis A and B. The number of vaccinations required differs by grade level.

Immunization is often portrayed as a personal choice by parents who oppose vaccines, but health officials stress that some individuals are too young or not healthy enough to be vaccinated. Those children rely on high vaccination rates in their community to prevent outbreaks that could affect them, a concept known as herd immunity. Less contagious diseases such as mumps or polio, require about 75 to 85 percent of individuals to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. But diseases like measles or pertussis spread more quickly and require vaccination rates of up to 94 percent to protect the unvaccinated.

Early this year, Deschutes County health officials sent letters home with Redmond School District students after at least four students were diagnosed with pertussis, also known as whooping cough.

“We have some in our county every year,” said Jill Johnson, immunization program coordinator for Deschutes County Health Services. “And it’s especially difficult on babies. They often have to be hospitalized for whooping cough, and it’s usually passed from someone in their circle, a family member or a caregiver.”

Johnson also stressed the importance of parents getting vaccine information directly from their health care providers.

“There’s just so much misinformation on the internet now,” she said. “With health care providers, people can really trust them when making vaccine decisions for their children.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2162,