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Fighting disease with vaccine
Tribune News Service

The risk of potentially serious childhood illnesses will be lessened in Montana this year, thanks to a law enacted by the 2015 Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock.

By updating the state’s requirements for vaccines needed to attend K-12 schools, Montana leaders are giving our children the same healthy advantage that children in other states have benefited from for years.

The law changes two things:

- Students must have two varicella (chicken pox) vaccines. Previously none was required.

- Students in grades 7-13 must have one pertussis (whooping cough) booster shot.

Both of these requirements have been previously recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Montana was the last of the 50 states to require the chicken pox vaccine for school children. Earlier this year, only two other states lacked the requirement for teens to get a pertussis booster.

Montana’s outdated requirements had bad consequences for our children: In 2013, Montana was No. 1 in the nation for the highest rate of pertussis infection and one child’s death resulted from pertussis, according to testimony to lawmakers. In that year, Montana’s pertussis rate was 69 cases per 100,000 population, compared with 9 cases per 100,000 nationally.

Montana year after year has had more chicken pox cases reported than our neighboring states, all of which require the vaccine for children to enter kindergarten.

According to the 2013 National Immunization Survey for Adolescents, 84 percent of Montana kids had received the pertussis booster, compared with 86 percent nationally.

Only 59 percent of Montana kids had the two-shot varicella series, compared with 78 percent nationally.

The impetus for the update enacted this year actually came from a Legislative Audit Division audit that recommended seeking legislation to better align state requirements with national recommendations.

Vaccinating school kids helps other Montanans. Many school-age children have younger siblings who would be at risk of infection if the school child fell ill. Whooping cough is most serious in newborns, but the vaccine cannot be administered to infants younger than two months. Thus, by vaccinating the school-age youngsters, the babies are better protected.

The law also protects children and adults who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, such as having an impaired immune system related to cancer treatment.

Exemptions remain

Montana law still provides exemptions from vaccines for religious and medical reasons. The 2015 legislation didn’t change the exemptions.

When House Bill 158 had hearings, its supporters included Montana public health officials from the state and counties, school nurses, Billings Clinic, Montana Medical Association, Montana Public Health Association and MHA, an association of health care providers, including hospitals, nursing homes and home health agencies.

Lack of updated requirements cost taxpayers money, in addition to the suffering caused by these preventable diseases.

A pertussis outbreak in a rural Gallatin County school earlier this year resulted in 11 cases of whooping cough, and 300 contacts that public health officials had to contact for preventive treatment, Jill Seeley of the Gallatin City-County Health Department told the House Education Committee. That outbreak required more than 80 hours of nursing work.

Seeley recalled another pertussis outbreak a few years ago in Bozeman High School that resulted in 43 cases with 1,500 contacts and cost taxpayers $38,000.

Voting for health

Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, sponsored the bill, which passed the House on a 57-43 vote and cleared the Senate 36-14.

We applaud MacDonald and the lawmakers of both parties who voted for HB158 to support healthier Montana kids. Those voting for kids included Sens. Duane Ankney, Elsie Arntzen, Taylor Brown, Robyn Driscoll, Doug Kary, Mary McNally, Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, and Roger Webb.

In the House, the vote split more on partisan lines. The only Yellowstone County Republican representatives who voted for the vaccine update were Geraldine Custer, Don Jones and Tom Richmond. These lawmakers stood up for public health despite their party leaders voting against the update.

If your kids haven’t been vaccinated against chicken pox, or you have a student going into grades 7-12 who hasn’t had a booster shot, now is the time to catch them up. Check with your family health care provider, or county health department for vaccine availability. In Yellowstone County, RiverStone Health, 123 S. 27th St., has scheduled extra vaccine clinic hours through Sept. 16.

The law says the children should be up-to-date on vaccines by Oct. 1.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.