School-required vaccinations boost immunity, reduce child disease risk

Children entering public and private schools in Alaska, as well as certified preschools and licensed daycares, must be immunized, unless he or she is given an exemption for medical or religious reasons.

Overall, the state does not see a high percentage of exemptions, said Gerri Yett, program manager for the state immunization program.

“Alaska had a series of several outbreaks and that’s why the two dose requirements for school was put forward. We have a high coverage rate for MMR (measles, mumps and rubella vaccine). If you go to an area that has seen the results of an outbreak, the coverage rates are better,” Yett said. “If you don’t see a disease, it’s hard to understand.”

Despite steady vaccination rates throughout the state, outbreaks of diseases vaccinated against can happen within schools. Most recently, cases of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, were reported in Kenai Peninsula schools in March.

Pertussis vaccines are recommended for children as part of the DTap vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis at 2, 4, 6 and 15-18 months old. Immunity against pertussis wanes after about age 7, which is why the schools recommend the Tdap booster around age 10.

However, individual immunization is not the only factor that prevents diseases. The main idea behind vaccination is preventing transmitting diseases through mass immunity.

“The longer you’re out from the initial administration date you will see some waning immunity and that’s been identified over the years. Anytime you’re not vaccinated for a vaccine preventable disease, of course it’s going to increase your potential for exposure or increase possibility for giving it to someone else. It all goes back to community immunity,” Yett said. “We encourage parents to stay up to date because community immunity, that’s what we depend on.”

Many families who choose not to vaccinate their children homeschool instead of dealing with the state exemption forms, said Rebecca Luczycki, public information officer for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Students may receive medical exemptions if an Alaska-licensed medical doctor, doctor of osteopathy, advanced nurse practitioner or a physician assistant says a vaccine may be injurious to the child or members of the child’s household, or due to disease history, according to the State of Alaska Child Care and School Immunization Requirements packet. If a child has already had a disease, they can be declared immune.

Similarly, children can receive an exemption to vaccinations if they have an affidavit signed by their parent or guardian stating that immunization conflicts with the tenets and practices of their church or religious denomination.

Religious exemption forms are valid July 1 to June 30 each year and must be renewed annually. Notarization of the form is required. Statements indicating philosophical or personal opposition to vaccines will invalidate religious exemption documentation, according to the immunization requirements packet.

In the case that a parent or guardian is unable to pay the cost of immunization, or immunization is not available in the district or community, it will be provided by state or federal public health services, according to the immunization requirement packet.

Anna Frost can be reached at