By Shereen Siewert
The Marathon County Board of Health is considering a resolution that officially supports a bipartisan effort in Wisconsin ending so-called “personal conviction” vaccines waivers.
Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, reintroduced the bill to in April, three years after his first attempt failed to make it out of committee. But public pressure is increasing for lawmakers to act, as the U.S. sees the most significant outbreak of measles in 27 years. As of Sept. 26, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,243 confirmed cases of measles spread throughout 32 states. That number is the highest since 1992.
Because measles is so contagious, studies have shown that 95 percent of the population needs to be immunized to prevent re-establishment of measles, which was eradicated in the U.S. in 2000. Students in Marathon County fall below that established guideline; K-12 students locally are immunized at a rate of 93.1 percent, according to DHS figures. Personal conviction waivers account for 3.7 percent of students who do not meet vaccination requirements in Marathon County.
Statewide, Wisconsin has a 5.3 percent exemption rate. Only four states — Arizona, Alaska, Idaho and Oregon — had higher rates of students who did not get the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine for personal reasons, according to CDC data.
That increase makes public health officials worry that Wisconsin could become more vulnerable to an outbreak, should measles or another vaccine-preventable disease make its way to the state.
All states provide exemptions from vaccination for specific scientifically proven medical reasons. Exemptions also may be granted based on religious beliefs. Medical exemptions are extremely rare, and most established religious orders support vaccination. Only 15 states allow personal exemptions from immunizations, including Wisconsin. Recently, in response to the measles outbreak, California entirely repealed its non-medical exemptions, and Vermont removed personal belief exemptions from its legal code.
Now, Marathon County health officials are urging state lawmakers to support a change in school and day care center immunization law. The proposed change would eliminate personal conviction waivers for students in Wisconsin public and private schools and for children who attend group day cares. Home schooled children are exempt from immunization reporting requirements.
Wisconsin’s percentage of students with religious and medical waivers have remained relatively constant over the past decade at less than 1 percent, according to DHS figures, but the percentage of students with a personal conviction waiver in Wisconsin rocketed from 1.2 percent during the 1997-98 school year to 4.6 percent during 2018-19.