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Feb. 18 is immunization 'exclusion day'

Parents who haven't brought their children's immunizations up to date or filed for a religious exemption can expect a call from their children's school next Wednesday.

Feb. 18 is "exclusion day," when Oregon children will be prevented from attending classes if their immunizations aren't current or their parents haven't sought a waiver.

Schools sent letters to parents on Feb. 4 reminding them of the deadline, said Stacy de Assis Matthews, immunization school law coordinator for the Oregon Health Division.

"If the kids don't have their shots that day (or a waiver), the schools will enforce exclusion," de Assis Matthews said Tuesday.

Immunization remains a hot topic in Southern Oregon. The Ashland School District has the highest rate of exemption (28 percent) among Oregon school districts, and among Oregon's 36 counties, Josephine County has the highest percentage of children who have not received at least one of the required immunizations.

Children who lack at least one immunization are counted along with those who have none at all.

Federal officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited Ashland in January to talk to parents about why they declined immunizations for their children despite the injections' proven ability to prevent potentially fatal diseases, such as whooping cough.

Four Oregon children have died of whooping cough during the past five years, de Assis Matthews said.

Parents who decline to immunize their kids have cited concerns about the possibility that substances in the vaccines may cause autism and other serious medical problems. They also worry about the sheer number of vaccines that children now receive at a stage of life where their immune system still is developing.

Immunization is controversial across Oregon, which ranks fourth among the states with the highest percentage of unimmunized children, behind Minnesota, Washington and Colorado (based on data for kindergartners).

De Assis Matthews said state policies on immunization exclusions differ dramatically. Oregon's religious waiver has been defined so broadly that nearly any parent can get one. In other states, parents must be members of recognized religious faiths.

She said the trend indicates a slow creep in the number of children who have not been immunized. For the school year that ended in June 2008, 6.44 percent of Jackson County kindergartners were missing at least one immunization; statewide, that number was 3.89 percent. For seventh-graders, 5.53 percent were unimmunized in Jackson County, 2.63 percent in Oregon.

De Assis Matthews said those figures show that more parents are choosing to decline immunization. The seventh-grade percentages indicate what the nonimmunization rate was seven years ago — not that children in the seventh grade were immunized sometime after kindergarten.

She said two new immunizations will be required this year — tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis for seventh-graders, and hepatitis A for kindergartners and children in preschools, child-care centers and Head Start.

She said it will be interesting to watch what happens, because with every new requirement some parents choose to seek a waiver.

"I'm not making any predictions," she said.