SIOUX CITY | Woodbury County's vaccination rate for children in grades K-12 hovered above 99 percent during the 2013-2014 school year, while vaccine exemptions rose, according to new data from the Iowa Department of Public Health.

The county recorded 52 vaccination exemptions during the 2003-2004 school year. Since then, the number of exemptions has steadily increased over the years, reaching a high of 177 during the 2013-2014 school year.

Parents may opt out of vaccination in Iowa for medical or religious reasons. The state doesn't allow a philosophical exemption as some other states do.

Linda Drey, director of nursing for the Siouxland District Health Department, said her staff works hard to make sure all children and adults who can be vaccinated are vaccinated. Of the 19,475 students enrolled in Woodbury County schools, 99.27 percent of them have vaccination certificates.

According to the data, Sergeant Bluff-Luton Elementary School had the highest percentage of students vaccinated in the county at 99.43 percent, while Anthon-Oto/Maple Valley Junior High School had the lowest at 87.07 percent. Six Woodbury County schools with enrollment of less than 100 students were not included in the report.

"Overall I would say most of the K-12 population in Woodbury County is very well-vaccinated, so we feel really good about that," Drey said. "We always are concerned about those children who don't receive vaccines for medical or religious reasons."

Alison Benson, a spokeswoman for the Sioux City Community School District, said the district makes sure parents are aware of state immunization requirements at kindergarten registration. If a student doesn't have the necessary immunizations, she said a staff member in the district’s orientation center works with the family.

Vaccination rates in the district's buildings ranged from 94.19 to 99.19 percent in 2013-2014, according to the IDPH's audit report. Benson said 38 students had a medical exemption and 40 students had a religious exemption that school year.

Benson said parents were eager to heed a new law that went into effect in January 2013 that requires students entering seventh grade to receive a one-time tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, Tdap, booster.

"We've had a really good response with parents getting their kids immunized for it," she said.

Drey said the number of children who have compromised immune systems, allergies to components of vaccines or certain medical conditions fluctuates from year to year. These children, she said, rely on everyone else around them to get vaccinated to protect them from vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.

An outbreak of the measles virus traced to Disneyland has sickened more than 140 people in eight states since December. Last month one of two confirmed cases of measles in eastern Nebraska was linked to the Anaheim, Calif., theme park.

A Sioux Falls, S.D., elementary school student who hadn't been vaccinated also contracted the virus and may have exposed others to it. South Dakota reported nine cases of measles among Mitchell-area residents in January. There have been no confirmed cases of measles in Iowa this year. The state hasn't had a case of measles since 2011.

Measles, a highly infectious, potentially deadly viral infection, begins with a high fever. A runny nose, cough, and white spots on the inside of the cheeks develop. Complications related to measles include blindness, pneumonia and swelling in the brain.

Drey said the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, is highly effective if an individual receives two doses of it. Yet, she said, parents of children able to receive vaccines may decide to forgo vaccination over safety concerns.

Much of the skepticism involving vaccines stems from a study published in The Lancet in 1998 that suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Subsequent studies disproved the claim and the study was later retracted from the medical journal.

Drey said it's hard to change some people's opinions, even if they were based on misinformation.

"Our vaccines in the United States are just very thoroughly researched and studied for long, long periods of time before they're released," she said. "The side effects compared to if we were not vaccinating our population at all for measles or any of the other significant diseases out there, we would be seeing many, many hospitalizations and deaths."

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