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New Data Says Colorado Immunization Rates Higher Than Previously Thought

Partha S. Sahana

Up until this year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (DPHE) had immunization data on only 350 kindergartners. Now, the department maintains a database with the vaccine statuses of over 850,000 children in Colorado. A 2016 Colorado Board of Health rule requires all schools and child care facilities with 10 or more children to report immunization data directly to the state.

Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer at the Colorado DPHE, called his department’s program “one of the greatest preventative initiatives of this century.”

Immunization in Colorado according to the CDC and DPHE. The CDC estimates kindergarten immunization rates whereas the DPHE provides school reported child care immunization rates.

Wolk explains that the database has a twofold aim: To provide  a more accurate reflection of immunization in Colorado and to give parents more information when deciding where to send their children to school. For students with weakened immune systems, the online database could prove crucial to ensuring their health.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that Colorado ranks 50th out of all 50 states in the four most common vaccines. However, their data drastically conflicts with that provided by the DPHE. Wolk explains the difference likely originates from DPHE taking a different approach from the CDC when gathering data.

Wolk was pleasantly surprised by the new data, explaining that “our rate of immunization came out a little bit higher than we thought.”

In total, the DPHE reports that a little over 96 percent of all students are compliant with school rules, including 2.6 percent of students who claimed an exemption and 0.3 percent of students with a plan to receive appropriate vaccines.

“We have had a relatively low rate of immunization compared to other states because we have had this higher rate of people taking personal exemptions,” says Wolk.

There are three types of exemptions students may claim: exemptions on the basis of religious, medical or personal grounds. Of the three, personal beliefs make up the vast majority, representing almost 90 percent of all exemptions.

Religious exemptions may apply to members of specific religions -- such as the Dutch Reformed Church -- with a longstanding stance against vaccinations. Medical exemptions may apply to children allergic to ingredients in the vaccine and require their doctor’s signature. Personal beliefs may apply to those who think their children should develop natural rather than artificial immunities.

Wolk says personal exemptions are more common in areas with particular “cultural characteristics.” He points to the Boulder area, where schools that have several of the highest exemption rates in the state reside right next to other schools with some of the lowest.

Despite the comprehensive nature of the data, the DPHE cautions against placing too much emphasis on it. This is only the first year such data has been curated and much of it is self-reported.

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