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Most Oklahoma kids get vaccinated, but weak spots remain

Kelli Farley, a registered nurse at the Creek County Health Department, draws a vaccine last week. [Photo by Cory Young, Tulsa World]

Kelli Farley, a registered nurse at the Creek County Health Department, draws a vaccine last week. [Photo by Cory Young, Tulsa World]

Oklahoma City — If your children go to a public school in Oklahoma, there's a good chance that enough of their classmates have had their shots to keep contagious diseases from spreading.

If they're in private school, however, the odds aren't necessarily on your side.

Lori Linstead, director of the immunization service at the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said the annual vaccination survey found that 91 percent of kindergartners in public schools were up to date on their vaccines, versus 59 percent of those in private schools.

Experts estimate 92 percent to 95 percent of the population in a given area needs to be vaccinated to establish “herd immunity,” a kind of protective buffer that keeps diseases from spreading.

Reporting is voluntary, so those numbers aren't exact, Linstead said, but the Health Department will be reaching out to schools with unusually low vaccination rates. It's not clear whether parents in those schools truly aren't getting their kids vaccinated, or if perhaps schools are making mistakes with the reporting forms, she said.

Oklahoma allows exemptions based on medical conditions, religious objections and personal beliefs. Sen. Ervin Yen introduced a bill to limit exemptions to children with conditions that prevent them from safely receiving vaccines, but the bill never made it out of committee, and Yen was defeated this year in his bid for re-election.

While the overall vaccination rate for kindergartners is in line with the national average, the rate for toddlers who are up to date is far lower. Only about two-thirds of 3-year-olds in Oklahoma have had the full sequence of vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the data from the Health Department.

Linstead said some parents may have decided to delay their children's vaccines, but others may have trouble with transportation or paying for frequent visits to the doctor. In those cases, parents may decide to catch up on all the vaccines when they take their children for a prekindergarten checkup, she said. The disadvantage of doing that is leaving children unprotected if there's a disease outbreak before they reach kindergarten.

“Folks are getting their kids vaccinated, for the most part,” she said. “We need to do better getting our little ones, our babies ages 19 to 35 months, vaccinated on time.”

Vaccination rates for teens were low. The state recommends that all teens receive coverage for meningococcal disease, which causes meningitis, and for human papillomavirus, a common infection that can cause multiple cancers. Teens don't see doctors as often as young children, so the Health Department is encouraging physicians to use any opportunity, including sports physicals, to get them covered, she said.

2017 vaccination rates in Oklahoma


• Full vaccine sequence, in 3-year-olds: 67.3 percent

• Meningococcal disease, all teens: 71.1 percent

• Human papillomavirus, teen boys: 37.5 percent

• HPV, teen girls: 45.6 percent


Source: Oklahoma State Department of Health

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›