Let’s hear it for the Oklahoma Alliance for Healthy Families, which is doing all it can to drive home the point that childhood vaccines are safe and effective in fending off potentially dangerous diseases.
This is something that had long been widely accepted in Oklahoma and across the country, but in recent years has become a hot-button political issue that ultimately puts children at risk.
In Oklahoma, efforts to strengthen the state’s broad vaccination laws have gone down in flames amid shouts from grassroots groups who insist their personal choices should be sacrosanct. Most legislators, who are otherwise unabashed about passing laws prescribing what citizens can and can’t do, are glad to defer on this issue.
As a result, Oklahoma remains one of 17 states that allow parents to cite personal or philosophical reasons for not having their child vaccinated. More and more are opting out of having their kids get the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.
According to the state Health Department, the exemption rate for Oklahoma kindergarteners was 2.6% for the 2018-19 school year. That compares with 2.2% the year before and 1.9% in 2016-17.
The overall vaccination rate for Oklahoma kindergarteners in 2018-19 was 91.4%, slightly better than the year before. But health experts say a 95% vaccination rate for MMR should be the goal.
The Oklahoma Alliance for Healthy Families is trying to get the state to that threshold.
The alliance, made up of several city and state health organizations, presented polling results recently that showed 90% of Oklahoma residents support vaccinating all children and 96% believe vaccines are effective at preventing diseases.
The survey was conducted by a conservative pollster and commissioned by a national group focused on preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Larry Bookman, president of the Oklahoma Medical Association, says the alliance feels it’s important for the Republican-dominated Legislature to know that Oklahomans, who generally are conservative, support vaccinations.
“When the community around us is vaccinated, we’re all much safer, we’re all much healthier,” Bookman said. “We have the privilege of making informed health care decisions for ourselves and our families.”
This year has shown what can happen when people aren’t vaccinated. Through the first week of November, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed 1,261 cases of measles in the United States — the largest total since 1992 for a disease that was considered eliminated in 2000. Most of the cases have been young people who weren’t vaccinated against measles, the CDC says.
Bookman says the alliance is trying to make sure parents are as informed as possible about vaccines’ benefits. The head of an Oklahoma group that promotes parental rights in health care decisions, meanwhile, says its members are reporting record numbers of vaccine reactions and poor health outcomes.
This fight isn’t abating. Our hope, meantime, is that the pro-vaccine voices ultimately win the day.