Fairmont school nurses: Vaccines essential

FAIRMONT — Discussions about vaccinations are not new but recently have been making headlines across the state and nation.

Certain diseases, such as measles, once thought to be eradicated in this country, are making a resurgence, and top health officials have reason to be on alert.

“The World Health Organization has rated vaccination hesitancy as one of the top 10 world health threats,” said Nancy Backer, school nurse at Fairmont High School.

Backer and April Tordsen, school nurse at the elementary school, say the vaccination compliance rate is 98 percent at the high school and 96 percent at the elementary school.

As Tordsen was quick to explain, documentation of vaccinations is mandated by the state and not something the district decides to request. The schools need documentation either saying where and when a child got his or her vaccines, or a parent’s signature on the exempt form.

“When people think of school nurses, they usually think about Band-Aids, ice packs and immunizations,” Tordsen said. “[Vaccination is] a big deal in the schools so we do spend a lot of time on it. We feel happy with the numbers but would like to be at 100 percent.”

Minnesota is one of 17 states that allow parents to opt out of immunizations for personal reasons. All states allow exemptions for medical reasons. Medical exemptions need to be signed by a physician while a conscientious exemption only needs to be signed by a parent or guardian who does not have to give a reason.

While some schools will not let students in the door without a form, Backer and Tordsen said they want to see kids in school so they keep checking on those who do not have their documents filled out.

“We get a lot of new kids coming and it’s hard to keep track,” Tordsen admitted.

She explained that while new-to-country families get vaccinated at the border, many do not have the paperwork to show, so it is difficult to track down.

Both Tordsen and Backer said the school vaccination numbers have been consistent throughout the past few years.

“I do think there’s a lot more talk recently,” Tordsen said.

“We feel that there’s a lot of propaganda and myths out there about vaccinations,” said Backer, citing social media as a source that can be overwhelming to some.

“Everyone wants what’s best for their kids,” Tordsen said. “They want to make a good choice for their kids. Our goal is to make sure they have a good, educated knowledge of what they’re doing.”

She said that as a nurse, evidence-based research shows the importance of vaccinations and the good they do.

Backer noted that some students are medically fragile, such as those with compromised immune systems who cannot be vaccinated. But it is risky for everyone if there are a lot of unvaccinated kids around.

“I think people have forgotten how horrible these diseases are. Even some doctors now have probably never seen some people with these complications,” said Backer, mentioning polio victims who had to live in iron lungs.

According to the World Health Organization, if people are not vaccinated, diseases that have become uncommon, such as whooping cough, polio and measles, will quickly reappear, which is why WHO has named vaccination hesitancy a top threat.

Backer has seen cases in which a child had all of their baby vaccinations and then, somewhere along the way, their parents have become conscientiously opposed to vaccinating.

“That shows that they’ve been influenced by something they’ve read or something has changed,” Backer said.

Health officials have stressed there is no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism or autistic disorders, a misconception among some.

Before a child starts kindergarten, the state requires that they be vaccinated for hepatitis B, DTaP/DT, polio, MMR and varicella. In seventh grade, students are required to be vaccinated for Tdap and meningococcal, the latter of which is a fairly new requirement. Backer said 94 percent of students at the high school are compliant with the new rule.

“It was just added and used to be recommended before students go off to college since they’ll be living in a shared space,” she explained. “A number of people have opted out of that. They’ve just chosen to wait and give it to their kids before they go to college.”

Tordsen said she and Backer meet with the public health agency and fellow school nurses once per month. Vaccinations are a common topic.

“It’s the same in every school. We’re always working on it,” Tordsen said.

While school nurses are not able to provide vaccinations, they do partner with Human Services and public health agencies to provide families with resources to learn more about vaccinations.

“For anybody who does not have insurance that covers vaccinations, they can call Human Services and get vaccinations for a much reduced rate,” Backer noted.

Both Tordsen and Backer stress that anyone who has questions regarding vaccinations should contact their health care provider or seek reliable information from the Centers for Disease and Control or the Minnesota Department of Health. The school district’s website also has a health service link.