Under new state regulations, schoolchildren must get more doses of the vaccine that prevents chicken pox and different doses of vaccines that prevent whooping cough, polio and other diseases.
New rules that took effect July 1 align the state requirements with federal guidelines many local doctors already use.
While school nurses have been poring through records to make sure students will meet the new rules before they return to school in the fall, they say most parents aren’t likely to notice the changes if their children have been going to regular checkups.
That’s because most local doctors already follow the federal guidelines put in place by a group of public health experts known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
“If you’re going for your routine checks, it’s no big deal because it’s part of it,” said Christine Harding, nurse practitioner at Williamsville Central Schools.
The changes to the state requirements for schoolchildren are the first update in more than a decade and come at a time when local pediatricians are watching outbreaks in other parts of the country of diseases, such as measles, that were largely thought to have been eradicated.
In addition to changing the doses for some vaccines, the state also is updating the way schools report students who are exempt from certain vaccinations for medical reasons and requiring that those medical exemptions be renewed every year.
“We take immunizations very seriously,” said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein, “because these are preventable diseases, and the diseases that they protect against can cause serious illness and even death.”
The changes to the vaccine requirements for schools will primarily affect kindergartners and sixth-grade students and will be phased in as those students move up, but the state has also clarified the number of doses for some vaccines that children receive in other grades.
Prior to the changes, state regulations had “not been modified to keep current with immunization practice” and were “therefore less effective in preventing communicable diseases,” state Health Department officials wrote in explaining the need for the new rules.
For example, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which develops guidelines for shots in the United States, has recommended since 2007 that children receive two doses of the vaccine that prevents chicken pox after finding that just one shot allowed too many “breakthrough cases.” New York State regulations, prior to July 1, required students to get only one shot for chicken pox.
Most doctors were already giving two doses of the chicken pox vaccine.
“That’s pretty much what all pediatricians follow anyway,” Burstein said of the recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. “I’m a pediatrician, too, so from our standpoint, it’s not a big change.”
The state requires a series of vaccinations for children in public and private preschools and schools, but allows exemptions for religious and medical reasons – both of which parents are required to submit information to a school in support of the exemption.
New York, unlike some other states, does not allow exemptions for children whose parents choose not to get their children vaccinated for “philosophical reasons.”
A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics found that the rate of religious vaccination exemptions in New York – although still just small percentage of students – had nearly doubled between 2000 and 2011, from 0.23 percent to 0.45 percent across the state. The study also found that counties with higher rates of religious exemptions had greater incidence of pertussis, which is also known as whooping cough.
Locally, the percentage of students who receive all of the state-required vaccinations is 95 percent or more in most public and private school districts, with some reporting as many as 99 percent to 100 percent of their students fully immunized, according to the state Department of Health.
A few private schools recorded a higher percentage of religious exemptions. Amherst Christian Academy, for example, recorded religious exemptions for 11.43 percent of its students in 2012-13.
Aurora Waldorf School reported 36.08 percent of its students received religious exemptions that year, according to the most recent Department of Health information available.
The state’s vaccination requirements for schools, Burstein said, contribute to a high immunization rate in New York for many of the diseases covered by the state rules.
In New York State, for example, 93.3 percent of teens have received vaccinations for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis, which is required to attend school; 39.7 percent of New York teens got all three doses of the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), which is not required, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Colleen Mattimore, a pediatrician who practices with Western New York Pediatrics, said she has seen an increase in the number of young parents during the last few years who have questions about vaccines based on information they’ve heard from other parents or read on the Internet.
“Today’s parents don’t see measles and they don’t see polio,” Mattimore said. “So I think vaccines have been so successful that today’s parents don’t see the diseases, and I think they don’t realize the risks that exist when their kids aren’t fully vaccinated.”
Mattimore said pediatricians seek to answer questions and acknowledge concerns, but encourage parents to look at scientific research about the safety of vaccines.
A review of 67 existing studies published last week in the journal Pediatrics concluded that adverse effects from common vaccines were “extremely rare” and should be weighed “against the protective benefits that vaccines provide.”
While the area has seen outbreaks of whooping cough, it has not seen a case of measles in recent years – a disease the county health commissioner watches with concern.
“We’ve been very fortunate, but I’m really worried about measles entering our community,” Burstein said. “They have it in Rochester. They have it throughout New York State, and I just think it’s a matter of time before it gets here.”