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Kindergarten immunization rate holds steady in SLO County

Medical assistant Kim Copeland, seen here in December 2014, gives flu shots and suckers to children at Dr. Rene Bravo’s office in San Luis Obispo.
Medical assistant Kim Copeland, seen here in December 2014, gives flu shots and suckers to children at Dr. Rene Bravo’s office in San Luis Obispo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The number of kindergarten students in San Luis Obispo County who received all their shots stayed steady this school year over last year, recent data from the California Department of Public Health show.

Of the about 3,150 kindergarten students attending public or private schools in the county this school year, only about 5.5 percent had a parental “personal belief exemption” form on file that excused them from receiving all vaccinations.

Statewide, the number of students with a personal belief exemption was lower, at 2.4 percent.

California has long required proof of immunizations before children can start kindergarten, unless parents sign an exemption form. The number of personal belief exemptions dropped in the 2014-15 school year after hitting 8.26 percent in 2013-14 — the highest percentage the county had seen in more than a decade.

Last school year’s drop in immunization exemptions coincided with a state law that took effect Jan. 1, 2014. The law requires parents who file a personal belief exemption to include a form signed by a doctor or other authorized medical provider that states the provider has informed the parents of the benefits and risks of immunization and the health risks of specific communicable diseases.

When asked if the law prompted the increase in immunizations, county public health nurse Christine Gaiger said she thought it had, or “at least it got people talking and thinking about it.”

3,147 Number of kindergarten students attending public or private schools in SLO County this year.

174Number of those students who had a parental “personal belief exemption” form on file.

“The education part was the intent,” Gaiger said. “People went to the doctor and maybe they were educated about the risk benefit and decided they were going to vaccinate. That was the idea behind the law.”

Another significant change went into effect Jan. 1 this year with Senate Bill 277, which no longer allows parents to submit a personal belief exemption to any required vaccine. All California schools and child care facilities are subject to the law.

Although the law essentially eliminates personal belief exemptions, it does allow some leeway for families that have already filed them.

Under the law, a personal belief exemption filed before Jan. 1 for a child already attending child care or school will remain valid until the child reaches the next immunization check — either when a child now attending preschool starts kindergarten or transitional kindergarten or when a child now in elementary school enters seventh grade, according to the state Department of Public Health’s Shots for School website.

A parent or guardian has long been able to submit a medical exemption to a required vaccination. Under SB 277, such exemptions are still allowed with a written statement from a licensed physician that states a child has a medical reason for not being immunized.

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO

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