It's the back-to-school season, and that means families have been flocking to county health departments for the immunizations required by all Florida schools. In Hillsborough County, the rush continued through Tuesday, the first day of school in the county, and even into Wednesday, said health department spokesman Steve Huard.
Statewide, about 92 percent of Florida schoolchildren are up-to-date on their vaccinations, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the rest are from families who formally opt out of vaccinations for religious, medical or philosophical reasons. According to the CDC, exemptions for children entering kindergarten went up in Florida about 20 percent between 2011 and 2012.
Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the Florida Department of Health — Hillsborough County, spoke to the Times on Wednesday about vaccines, who needs them, who's skipping them and why that could cause problems for public health.
Childhood vaccination rates are above 90 percent. Are you happy with that?
I would like to see the numbers higher, of course. Our goal is always 100 percent. And lately, the number of people opting out has increased, but I think we've seen the peak of that. At this time, I don't expect that practice to lead to any major outbreaks in the community.
Then why be concerned about a few children who aren't immunized?
First, I am concerned about the health of those unvaccinated children. They can get pretty sick if they get measles, mumps or whooping cough, for example. But I'm also concerned about the unnecessary disruption caused in a school when a child comes down with one of these preventable diseases. The sick child has to be taken out of school, and so do any other children who haven't been vaccinated and came in contact with that sick child. They have to stay away for at least two weeks, the incubation period for the diseases, to be sure they don't have it, too.
Who's opting out and why?
We don't see it so much with our clients at the health department, but in talking with my colleagues in hospitals and in private practice in the community, it seems to be less about the risk of autism, which was the case for so many years; recent research seems to have calmed many of those fears. Now it's more about parents not wanting to put anything "unnatural" in their children if they don't have to.
Whooping cough (pertussis) has made a comeback. Are you still urging adults to get a booster vaccine?
Yes. If you were vaccinated in childhood and are a young or older adult — especially if you know you are going to be around a newborn — you need a booster. There's a gap of time before newborn vaccinations start that the child is vulnerable. If you have a persistent or annoying cough, … avoid young children who haven't been adequately vaccinated.
How about this year's flu vaccine?
It's being shipped now. Some vaccine will be available in August, but most will be available in September and October.