The Hawaii Department of Health provided a huge public service last month when it released school-by-school information about the percentages of students who aren’t getting vaccinated against communicable diseases.
For the first time in the islands, when it comes to the risk of illness, parents can see how safe of an environment exists in every public and private school — except for the few that have so far ignored the DOH directive to report their vaccination exemption rates.
The information set off some alarms. For instance nearly a quarter of public, charter and private schools on Kauai have extremely high rates of unvaccinated children. And pockets of extremely high numbers can be found throughout Hawaii.
This is crucial data at a time when anti-vaccine activists threaten public health by attempting to convert others to their misguided thinking. Vaccines have been proven to be safe for the vast majority of people, and yet immunization rates have been going down, allowing potentially deadly diseases such as measles, mumps, chickenpox, diphtheria, hepatitis, polio, rubella and whooping cough to make comebacks after they had been nearly eradicated in much of the developed world.
But now the health department — and Hawaii lawmakers — need to go even further by expanding their public education efforts regarding vaccinations. It’s also time to seriously consider whether we should continue to allow parents to put their children — and others — at risk by granting religious exemptions.
The Department of Health required all Hawaii schools — public and private — to provide records of the number of students who have received exemptions from vaccinations.
Several other states are already thinking about tightening the rules for exemptions, in some cases allowing them only for individual medical reasons documented by doctors. This includes Washington state, where the worst measles outbreak in more than two decades has sickened at least 74 people and cost more than $1 million.
In Hawaii, most children who go unvaccinated do so because their parents request exemptions on religious grounds. No further justification is required, and while some religious organizations do oppose vaccinations, many people are no doubt claiming the exemptions based on purely secular beliefs.
Rep. Gene Ward, a Hawaii Kai Republican, proposed a bill this session to allow people to obtain exemptions “based solely on moral conscience,” eliminating the need to claim religious reasoning.
House Bill 1182 never got a hearing, an appropriate result for any measure making it easier to avoid vaccinations.
People need to hear an entirely different message from their elected leaders and health officials. At a time when social media makes it so easy to spread false information and inspire distrust of government at all levels, the health department needs to be a clear and incessant voice of reason when it comes to preventing the spread of disease.
The department is already doing quite a bit:
It works with pediatric health care providers statewide to provide free or low-cost vaccinations to eligible children through the Vaccines for Children program.
It partners with the Hawaii Immunization Coalition, the Hawaii Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Hawaii Association of Health Plans to promote vaccinations.
But it needs to do more. The Legislature should consider appropriating funds for a widespread public information campaign that reaches a wider audience through TV, radio, print and social media spots.
The stakes are simply too high to say we can’t afford such an ambitious effort.
This is settled science, and yet anti-vaccine activists have planted a seed of doubt in the minds of some people, pushing the polarizing notion that the issue has two sides and reasonable people must agree to disagree.
No, people need to protect their kids, and everyone else’s kids, by ensuring the medical advances that squelched these diseases aren’t undermined by a resistance to having the government tell you what to do.
If an epidemic were to break out in a school, state law allows health officials to prevent unvaccinated students from attending classes. Ironic, since those would probably be the students responsible for the outbreak.
The school-by-school exemption numbers released by the health department — in response to a records request from Civil Beat — aren’t all discouraging. On Oahu, the figures show that fewer than 1 percent of students were unvaccinated for the current school year. But the total was 5.7 percent on Kauai, 4.3 percent on the Big Island and 3.3 percent on Maui.
The statewide rate of unvaccinated children for 2018-19 was roughly 2 percent — about 3,900 unvaccinated students. In 2013-14, a school year that had more complete data, it was roughly 1 percent, according to a Civil Beat analysis.
The data for the current school year is less complete because 27 public and private schools, including 19 on Oahu, had not responded as of March 21 to a health department demand for the information.
The department is following up with those schools through the Department of Education and the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools. When the school year ends, it plans to update the information on its website to include them.
Those holdouts owe it to the parents of their students to provide the information immediately.
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Richard Wiens, Chad Blair and Jessica Terrell. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.