MOUNT VERNON — Last year, Knox County reported the second-lowest vaccination rates in the state among seventh and 12th-grade students. Today, Mount Vernon Middle and High School are holding vaccination clinics to help students catch up.

“It is important to keep the safety of our students at the forefront,” said Pam Rose, the district’s director of student services. “In following with state requirements, we are requiring the parents provide proof of the immunizations or complete the exemption form before the Sept. 10th deadline.”

State law requires students to have certain vaccinations in order to attend school. Parents who chose not to vaccinate their child for reasons of conscience, religious or medical reasons must submit an exemption form, with medical exemptions requiring a health provider’s signature. Schools are supposed to collect either an exemption form or proof of vaccination from all kindergartners, new students, seventh graders and 12th graders by the 14th day of the school year. They are required to submit an annual summary of this data to the Ohio Department of Health by Oct. 15.

“The last couple of years Knox County in general, but Mount Vernon specifically, has not fared well,” said Pam Palm, public information officer for the Knox County Health Department.

According to last year’s report from the Ohio Department of Health, Knox County has some of the lowest rates of student immunizations. During the 2018-19 school year, Knox County lagged behind state averages for incoming kindergartners, seventh and 12th graders (the grade levels for which data is collected.)

While the countywide average vaccination rates are some of the lowest in the state, rates fluctuate inside the county. Nearly 92 percent of East Knox seventh graders and 90 percent of East Knox 12th graders were up-to-date on vaccinations by last year’s September deadline. Centerburg’s vaccination rates were 87 percent (seventh grade) and 64 percent (12th grade).

Meanwhile, Mount Vernon had rates of 64 percent (seventh grade) and 32 percent (12th grade). Fredericktown had the lowest rates in the county, 57 percent (seventh grade) and 36 percent (12th grade).

Last year’s data from Danville Local Schools was not available, but by the deadline of the 2017-18 school year, 95 percent of seventh-graders and 83 percent of 12th graders had all the required vaccinations.

Although vaccination rates vary by district, one thing is consistent. In nearly all Knox County school districts, the rate of students up-to-date on vaccinations goes down as students get older. While 87 percent of Knox County kindergartners were up-to-date on their vaccinations, the number dropped to 71 percent in the seventh grade and 46 percent for high school seniors.

Palm cited multiple reasons families might not keep up with their vaccinations.

“It gets kind of hectic right before school,” she said. For some parents, vaccination forms may simply get lost in the shuffle of paperwork, permission slips and after-school activities.

Another potential reason is that the public isn’t as afraid of outbreaks and epidemics as it used to be.

“I think there are some people that, because we don’t see (diseases like polio) as much any more, people don’t think it’s important anymore,” she said.

“There’s also a lot of misinformation, especially on the internet,” she added. “There have been numerous studies that show that autism is not caused by immunizations.”

Although the state allows parents the choice not to vaccinate their children for reasons of conscience, religion or medical complications, few Knox County residents invoke those reasons. According to the Ohio Health Department report, only 11 incoming seventh graders and six incoming 12th graders opted out of vaccinations for religious or philosophical reasons. However, these numbers only take into account students whose parents returned an exemption form to their child’s school.

Scott Will, principal of Mount Vernon High School, said he hasn’t observed much opposition to immunizations in the community. He suggested that the frenzied nature of the back-to-school season is likely a bigger obstacle to getting parents to send in the forms.

Starr Roden, a registered nurse with the Knox County Health Department, feels optimistic that the county will have better numbers from this year’s report.

“I think things are going to be different this year,” she said. “All of the schools have really made an effort to get people immunized.”

Mount Vernon Superintendent Bill Seder told the News that students who do not turn in a form by the 10th will not be allowed to return to school until the form is turned in.

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Katie Ellington: 740-397-5333 or katie@mountvernonnews.com and on Twitter, @kt_ellington