Student vaccination rates and immunization records have been in the news for months, but important data is missing from the statistics: that of teachers and administrators who are around children five days a week.
A measles outbreak at Vista Murrieta High School in Riverside County, Calif., required the state to review student immunization records. Although the documentation with students’ vaccine information was easy to find, that of their teachers and the school’s staff was not.
“The staff was required to provide proof that they had either had measles or were immunized,” said Karen Parris, a representative for Vista Murrieta High School.
Because some of the staff is older, their records were not easily available. The California Department of Public Health worked with the school and said those born before 1957 were considered to have immunity from measles because of its prevalence in past decades.
California schools have no laws requiring teachers to provide immunization history.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are legislation changes soon for what is required for teachers after these measles outbreaks,” said Renee Lang, the communications director for the National Association of State Boards of Education. “But no legislation has been written or proposed just yet.”
Cynthia Conteas-Wood, the director of health and wellness at Westridge School in Pasadena, Calif., said before 2014, the only vaccination proof teachers had to provide was immunity from tuberculosis; but due to funding changes, teachers now only fill out a questionnaire about their vaccine history.
“I frankly see it as a terrible change because it’s become all the easier for a person to say they’ve gotten their shots even if they’re not sure because they want to avoid the hassle,” Conteas-Wood said. “Diseases like tuberculosis still exist in California.”
Tuberculosis requirements for school employees and volunteers changed with a bill signed in 2014 that replaced mandatory testing with a “TB risk assessment questionnaire.” Because testing and vaccinating teachers for tuberculosis was costly, the bill states: “The best public health and medical evidence suggests that universal TB testing is neither necessary nor cost-effective.”
All data regarding adult immunizations is solely retrieved through surveys, which have a higher margin of error, according to Conteas-Wood. The surveys are sent to the California Department of Public Health.
Carlos Villatoro, from the California Department of Public Health, said teachers are aware of the importance of vaccines but there is little data on how many teachers have had vaccination shots.
We’ve found numerous times that when people don’t have all their vaccines, it comes as a surprise to them.
“We’ve found numerous times that when people don’t have all their vaccines, it comes as a surprise to them,” Villatoro said. “But educating people is the most we can do.”
One of the states that has attempted to make a change in legislation for teacher vaccinations is Vermont. In 2012, Vermont lawmakers attempted to introduce an ordinance that would eliminate both the religious and the philosophical exemptions for all vaccines, as well as require all teachers and school staff to be fully immunized.
One of the bill’s co-sponsors is physician and Congressman George Till (D).
“Whether [you’re] an adult or a child, you can spread measles and other contagious diseases easily,” Till told NPR. “I think it’s important that the whole staff either demonstrate that they have immunity — and it’s easily done with a blood test — or that they get re-vaccinated if they don’t have the immunity.”
The anti-vaccine community fought the bill and it did not pass. Resident Barbara Loe Fisher wrote: “Informed consent to medical risk-taking is a human right. You have the right to be fully informed about the benefits and risks of pharmaceutical products — like vaccines — and be allowed to make a voluntary choice about whether or not to take the risk without being punished for it.”
Till will attempt to push the bill again this year and will likely face similar opposition.
CORRECTION – Editor’s Note (4/7/2015): In this story originally published April 7, 2015, Peninsula Press incorrectly identified Carlos Villatoro as with the California Department of Education. Villatoro is a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health. This is a corrected story.