New River Health Director Dr. Molly O'dell says one of the first public health laws on the books in Virginia dealt with children going into schools free of vaccine preventable diseases. "The whole reason for childhood vaccinations is to prevent school age diseases that used to be crippling and cause disability," O'dell said.
But today, many parents opt out of vaccinations recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. "We would like to say 100% of our school children are immunized or have a complete medical reason why they can't be vaccinated."
Health officials don't keep a complete record of compliance but schools track the information. Students need to be vaccinated or have a notarized exemption on file. In Montgomery County, there are more than 9,000 students. 118 of them, or just over one percent are unvaccinated. Out of more than 13,000 Roanoke students, nearly 1,100, more than eight percent are unvaccinated. "Certainly anything over 90% is good in terms of the rest of the population who is vaccinated being able to provide the herd immunity to those individuals who are not vaccinated."
That's within an often recommended range but not enough to protect every student if there's an outbreak of disease the health department is already seeing cases of this year. "We've definitely seen whooping cough or Pertussis," O'dell said. "We've had chicken pox cases, mumps and measles cases in the state."
Already this year, the Department of Health reports 61 cases of Pertussis in our region compared to 42 in the same time period last year. When a case pops up at a daycare or school, VDH and schools identify children who haven't had vaccines because they're the most at risk. They'll have to stay home from school.
VDH says it is working to educate parents to get their kids vaccinated and offering free vaccines. They're particularly encouraging pregnant women, young adults, grandparents and anyone in contact with a child to get vaccinated.