By Shereen Siewert

Vaccination rates at schools across Marathon County vary widely, as vaccine-preventable diseases continue to make a comeback in some areas of the U.S. with unvaccinated populations.

While most schools in Marathon County have high vaccination rates for students, the numbers vary from school to school; some have rates that are significantly lower than what epidemiologists say are ideal to prevent outbreaks.

Generally, the percentage of children who are fully vaccinated was slightly lower at schools in the western part of the county than at Wausau-area schools, and significantly lower at some private and parochial schools, according to information from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services for the 2018-19 school year.

Under Wisconsin law, students must receive a minimum number of immunizations at specific ages and grade levels for polio, chicken pox, hepatitis B and a combined vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella. However, parents can request a waiver for health reasons, religious beliefs or personal convictions.

Wisconsin is one of just 18 states that allow parents to opt out of required vaccinations simply because they don’t believe in vaccinating their children. That means schools can have low vaccination rates but still be in full compliance with state law. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reports that currently 4.6 percent of Wisconsin school children have a personal conviction waiver for immunizations.

That’s an increase of 0.3 percent over the previous year, and the first time in five years that number of waivers has grown.

Most local schools have vaccination rates of 90 percent or above, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. In Wausau, 94.2 percent of public school students in the Wausau School District meet the minimum vaccination requirements. At Newman Catholic High School, the rate is 92 percent.

At some private schools, however, vaccination rates dip lower. Faith Christian Academy, for example, reports that just 72 percent of students meet minimum requirements. At FCA, 16 percent of students have a “personal conviction” waiver, according to DHS. The numbers are similar at Our Saviors Evangelical Lutheran Grade School, where 73 percent of students met minimum requirements and 18 percent have a “personal conviction” waiver.

The Athens Mennonite School has the lowest rate in Marathon County, with just 24 percent of students meeting the minimum vaccination requirements.

Vaccination rates for schools in the D.C. Everest district were not included in the annual DHS report, but the Marathon County Health Department confirmed that 93 percent of students in the district met requirements. Less than 3 percent of D.C. Everest students have a “personal conviction” waiver.

The debate over whether to vaccinate continues, though it is unclear what exactly causes parents across the country and in Marathon County not to vaccinate their children. Some decisions can be traced to a now-discredited report connecting vaccines to autism, as well as other vaccine misinformation being spread online. While parents who do not vaccinate might have good intentions, when certain vaccination thresholds are not met, the general population is at risk for outbreaks, health officials say.

According to a peer-reviewed report in Epidemiologic Reviews, to maintain herd immunity vaccination rates should be around 94 percent for pertussis, 83-94 percent for measles, 75-86 for mumps, 85 percent for rubella and 80-86 percent for polio.

Rebecca Mroczenski, communicable disease manager for the Marathon County Health Department, said the issue of herd immunity is not always a simple one. Herd immunity is when enough members of a population are vaccinated that it prevents germs from easily traveling from person to person.

“We do have goals for vaccine rates, however, those typically are for children age 2 and this is what we measure on a yearly basis,” Mroczenski said. “We also do look at school rates, but those are looking at different vaccines than our 2 year age group. Certainly, for herd immunity to work everyone that can be vaccinated should be vaccinated as this helps to protect those in our community that can’t be vaccinated.”

Marathon County Health Officer Joan Theurer said the promotion of children and adults being up-to-date on their vaccines is a priority at the county, state and national level.

“The measles outbreak in the U.S. reinforces the importance of vaccinations, protecting our most vulnerable populations and communities from the spread of vaccine preventable diseases,” Theurer said.

The Marathon County Health Department actively works to promote vaccination in the county and throughout the state, Mroczenski said.

“Resources and information is provided to schools, daycares, and medical offices,” Mroczenski said. “The Vaccines For Children (VFC) program is a program that is offered throughout the State via Health Departments and medical providers. It eliminates or reduces vaccine costs as a barrier to vaccinating eligible children.?

A link for information on that program can be found here.

The health department is also responsible for reaching out the families of children age 2 and under that are behind in receiving the vaccines that are part of the recommended vaccine schedule, Mroczenski said.

The department also provides free or low-cost vaccination clinics throughout the year. Clinics are held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. the first Monday of each month, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. the second Wednesday of each month, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. the third Thursday of each month and from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. the fourth Friday of each month at the Marathon County Health Department, 1000 Lake View Drive, Suite 100, Wausau. Appointments are required and can be scheduled by calling 715-261-1900.

A searchable map showing current vaccination rates for schools in all 72 Wisconsin counties can be found here.

Wisconsin State Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) is introducing a bill to prevent parents from opting out of vaccinating their children. Under Hintz’s proposal, parents would still be able to opt-out for religious or medical reasons.

Currently fewer than 1 percent of Wisconsin students have religious or medical waivers.