Statewide data shows that just under 90 percent of Maine kindergartners were vaccinated against measles during the 2013-14 school year, just shy of the minimum level public health experts say is needed to prevent outbreaks.
Luckily, measles hasn’t appeared in Maine as part of the most recent national outbreak, with the last case confirmed in the state in 1997.
But unlike other states, including Vermont, Maine doesn’t report vaccination rates by school district. Maine’s data meets the requirements of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but many parents may want to learn the vaccination rate at their local school.
Can you call your local school and find out? The answer is complicated.
Parents who opt against vaccinating must claim an exemption if they want to send their child to school, said Nancy Dube, school nurse consultant for the Maine Department of Education. Parents must declare in writing an objection for philosophical, religious or medical reasons, and then submit it to the school.
Schools must maintain a list of the names of all children exempted from vaccination. If an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable illness occurs — just one case can constitute an outbreak — unvaccinated children will be prevented from attending classes and school activities for the duration of the outbreak, ranging from 16 to 21 days, she said. If a second case of the illness arises, unvaccinated children can be required to stay out of school for another 16 days, she said.
Federal law protects the privacy of students’ health records, including vaccine exemptions.
Smaller schools run the risk of identifying unvaccinated students if they report the number of opt-outs, she said. If fewer than 10 students are exempted, schools can’t release the information, Dube said.
A better approach is to ask for the school’s overall vaccination rate, Dube said, though Maine law doesn’t mandate that schools calculate or report it. Upon request, the school nurse may pull out the exemption file and do the math, she said.
As the Maine Department of Education interprets the law, the percentage of students vaccinated in a school is public information, provided no individual children could be identified, according to Samantha Warren, Department of Education director of communications.
But the department lacks the authority or expertise to legally advise schools, and it suggests they consult with their school district attorneys or the Maine School Management Association, she said. Many schools may not have a record of the vaccination rate, since it’s not required by law, leaving the choice to calculate and publicize the information in local hands, she said.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention hopes to provide school-level vaccination data next year, according to a spokesman.
If a case of measles is confirmed in Maine, the Maine CDC would work with the child’s school district to determine if other students or staff were exposed, Dube said. Whether the agency informed parents with children at the same school would depend on its assessment of the risk to others, she said.
As with the flu and other infectious diseases, any child who shows symptoms of measles would be sent home immediately, Dube said.
Overall, vaccination rates remain high among Maine schoolchildren, she said. But many health providers have never seen the disease, so school nurses are brushing up to ensure they can spot any symptoms, she said.