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Opinion: Oklahoma vaccine rule should stay in place

The state Health Department is mulling whether to roll back a rule requiring parents to receive some instruction before exempting their children from vaccines due to religious or personal reasons. Oklahomans should back the rule before the comment period ends Thursday.

Oklahoma is trending in the wrong direction when it comes to childhood immunizations. The rule approved last year might just help bend that in the other direction.

The state mandates that children entering school be vaccinated against several diseases including measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox and polio. Oklahoma, however, is one of 15 states that allows exemptions for non-medical reasons. The number of those exemptions has grown considerably during the past several years, prompting the new rule.

The rule, whose implementation was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, requires that parents go to their local health department for a “brief instructional presentation” about childhood vaccines before deciding whether to opt out.

Overall, 91% of kindergarten children were fully vaccinated for the 2019-20 school year, although it is possible the total was lower than that because only 79.5% of schools participated in the Health Department’s annual voluntary survey. The participation rate, 7% lower than the year before, was likely related to COVID-19 school closures, but the vaccination rate has been sliding for a decade.

Experts say a vaccination rate of 92% to 95% in a given area is needed to establish “herd immunity” and keep diseases from spreading.

Childhood vaccinations have become highly politicized in Oklahoma, as elsewhere. The Legislature consistently rejects efforts to strengthen the state’s vaccination laws, saying the issue belongs in the hands of parents.

Physicians interested in seeing last year’s rule remain in place note that they are not trying to remove parental choice.

“We’re trying to provide scientific, evidence-based information to parents to be sure they know factual information about vaccinations,” said Dr. Steven Crawford, a family physician in Oklahoma City and chairman of the Oklahoma Alliance for Healthy Families.

In an interview, Crawford said clinicians' goal is “to make sure that parents have the right information before they make a decision. We ultimately believe vaccines are safe and effective for almost every person.”

A low vaccination rate increases the risk of infection to others, especially those medically compromised, Crawford said, and potentially hurts the state’s ability to attract businesses from of out of state. “And I think it’s patriotic — I think it’s a national security risk to have a poorly vaccinated population,” he said.

Another alliance member, Dr. Don Wilber, a pediatrician and former longtime chairman of the Health Department’s vaccine advisory committee, said simply: “Vaccines are unbelievably important. Phenomenally important. Vaccines are the greatest advance in medicine ever.”

More Oklahoma children should be getting these life-saving vaccines. Comments to the Health Department can be made online at


Opinion editor Owen Canfield is in his 18th year writing editorials for The Oklahoman and has spent nearly 40 years in journalism. Contact him at or call (405) 475-3205. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a print or digital subscription at

Owen Canfield III

Owen Canfield has written editorials for The Oklahoman since 2003. Prior to that, he spent 19 years with The Associated Press in Oklahoma City. He is a 1981 graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He and his wife, Lori, have four children. Read more ›