Oregon health officials fighting to lower rates of unvaccinated children in their state will get some help March 1, when a new law goes into effect requiring parents to receive education on the benefits and risks of common vaccinations if they want their child to be exempted from the vaccination requirement.
"We want to make sure parents and guardians receive science-based information about the benefits and risks of vaccine," Stacy de Assis Matthews, school law coordinator for the state Public Health Division, told The Associated Press. "There is a lot of misinformation out there on the Internet."
The statewide percentage of children who attend school in Oregon but who have not been fully immunized after their parents or guardians signed a nonmedical exemption form is more than three times the national average.
According to the Oregon Public Health Division, the rate of kindergarteners who have received nonmedical exemptions from required vaccinations has been climbing steadily from 2.4 percent in 2001-02 to 6.4 percent in 2012-13.
Some counties in the state have exemption rates as high as 15 percent and in some schools the rate is as high as 70 percent, which can leave communities more prone to diseases such as measles and pertussis, better known as whooping cough.
According to information published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year, the rate of kindergarteners receiving nonmedical exemptions nationwide is approximately 1.8 percent.
The law was sponsored by state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hawyard, a family physician, who told the AP she believed once parents hear the science behind the vaccines they will be less likely to turn them down.
Since a similar law went into effect in Washington state in 2011, the rate of waivers for kids entering kindergarten has dropped 27 percent, according to the AP.
Under the new law, Oregon parents who want to exempt their child from being vaccinated will have to talk to a healthcare provider or view an online education module about vaccinations.
In recent years, healthcare officials have struggled with handling outbreaks of formerly controlled diseases as some parents have refused vaccinations for their children.
A study published last year in the Pediatrics Journal found that a 2010 whooping cough outbreak that infected more than 9,000 people was linked to clusters of unvaccinated children.
That study found that people living in areas where a large number of people had opted out of vaccines were 2.5 times as likely to live in an area with a large number of pertussis cases. The disease is especially dangerous for infants, who cannot receive the vaccine until they are two months old.
Healthcare officials now hope more education about vaccines will help to debunk online misinformation and encourage parents to vaccinate their children.
"I think to be honest people didn't really fear pertussis anymore," Jessica Atwell, lead author on the study and a Ph.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health told ABC News last year. "They don't realize how fragile our control of diseases like this is. They will come back."