Students attending public schools in the District return to classes on August 27, and with many parents opting out of vaccinations, school and health officials are hard-pressed to drive home the importance of the shots.
However, while Najma Roberts, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Health, noted that all District of Columbia Public School [DCPS] students must show proof of immunizations, she said her agency has partnered with DCPS to provide vaccinations free of charge.
"We are committed to getting the word out," said Roberts. "Oftentimes, parents have their reasons for not wanting their children vaccinated – but the shots are for the children's well-being." Roberts said that in order to ensure more students are immunized, school nurses are also able to administer shots which help eliminate infectious diseases such as measles, varicella [chicken pox] and diphtheria.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have student vaccination requirements. In the District, all students – whether they attend public, charter or private schools – are required to be vaccinated for chicken pox. District law also mandates that children four years of age or younger, have the pneumococcal and Hepatitis A vaccines. Students in grades six through 12 need the meningococcal vaccine as well as the Tdap booster if five years have passed since their last dosage. Female students entering the sixth-grade should be vaccinated for the Human Papillomavirus Virus [HPV]. But parents can also choose to opt-out of HPV.
The Children's National Medical Center in Northwest defines a vaccine as a dose of a dead or weakened version of a disease, which allows the body to generate antibodies to protect the child from future exposure.
It also notes on its website that while children should receive the majority of vaccinations by age two, vaccines have generated some controversy over safety, although no convincing evidence of harm has been found.
According to studies contained in the Journal of the American Medical Association, non-vaccinated children have been more than 35 times more likely to contract measles and nearly six times more likely to contract pertussis [whooping cough], than vaccinated children.
Among reasons parents give for opting out of vaccines are concern about their young children developing autism, allergic reactions, religious and philosophical beliefs or the existence of medical conditions related to the use of vaccines.
Christine Easterling, 72, is a retired DCPS educator who worked as both a teacher and principal for 30 years. She said that although some parents' fears are legitimate, that overall, it's important for students to be immunized. She said that it's because a child could be carrying a disease that could quickly spread throughout a school building.
"Some parents just don't realize how important it is to get the shots and the diseases their children could come up with, especially if it's a large school," said Easterling, who retired 10 years ago. "As kids are going up and down the steps, they're all touching the same railing. They go to the cafeteria and they sit at the same table. They go to the restroom and they're touching the door handles – giving germs and diseases ample opportunity to spread within large populations."
Easterling said that during her tenure, school staff tended to check immunizations "very, very carefully," and that the system would give parents just so many days to get the records in, or their children were not allowed to attend classes.
"The school nurses were very particular about that and so were the counselors," Easterling said. "I think we should continue to be very strict and very concerned, because now that we have so many people among us from other countries, we never know what kind of diseases our children are being subjected to."
Meanwhile, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that immunizations have had an enormous impact on improving the health of children across the country, and that if children contract diseases that could be prevented with vaccinations, the diseases can not only be serious enough to require hospitalization – they could also be deadly – particularly in infants and young children.
DCPS was contacted for comment, but did not respond by Washington Informer press time. However, Nathan Saunders, 46, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said school officials normally allow parents a certain amount of time after the school year begins to have their children immunized. He also mentioned that school nurses are on hand to give shots.
"That's a good thing because a lot of students don't have medical insurance," said Saunders. "In fact, a majority of the public schools offer vaccinations. All students need to do is to get a permission slip signed by their parents to give the school nurse."
Saunders added that teachers have expressed little concern being among students who haven't been immunized.
"That hasn't been a major issue – it may have popped up one or two times, but it hasn't been a systematic situation," he said.