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Q&A: A look at Pennsylvania's new student immunization rules

| Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, 12:15 a.m.

The Pennsylvania health department wants students to get vaccinated much sooner than previously required.

State officials want both public and private school students to be up-to-date with all their vaccinations within five days of the beginning of the school year, a drastic reduction from the eight months that pupils used to have to get their shots.

The measure is intended to prevent the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as last year's whooping cough outbreak where residents in two central Pennsylvania counties became ill with the bacterial respiratory disease.

In response, health officials offered free immunization shots after the reported 29 cases of pertussis in Cumberland and Franklin counties in 2016.

Dr. Lee H. Harrison, an epidemiology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says outbreaks of infectious diseases have demonstrated the need for high immunization rates.

A closer look at the new rules:

When do kids need the vaccines?

Pennsylvania students need to have all their immunity vaccines within five days after the beginning of the school year. Previously, students had eight months to get their shots.

Pupils could get around the five-day requirement if they have a medical certificate on or before the fifth day of school that shows a schedule of when they will get their vaccines, said April Hutcheson, spokeswoman for the state Health Department.

What if i don't want my child to be vaccinated?

A student could be exempt from vaccination if they can show a medical, religious, moral, ethical or philosophical reason for abstaining. Hutcheson did not elaborate on how students would prove such an exemption, though she did say that students who prove an exemption might be excluded from school if a vaccine-preventable disease breaks out.

The immunizations could also be waived if a child is homeless, if they transferred into the school or if there is a national vaccine shortage.

How did these new rules come about?

The Health Department spokeswoman said the new regulations were developed over a nearly two-year process that included several public comment phases that drew nearly 300 recommendations from parents, school nurses and physicians.

The updated requirements bring Pennsylvania in line with recommendations set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's committee on immunization practices.

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