The percentage of Luzerne County seventh-graders lacking state-mandated vaccinations is twice the Pennsylvania average, according to the state Department of Health.
The rate for kindergarteners also is higher than the state average.
Figures for students in those two grades in Lackawanna County also were well above statewide percentages in data based on reports from school districts to the department on Oct. 1.
Department officials are hopeful rates have declined significantly since then in response to new recommendations that went into effect in August.
Oct. 1 was the most recent date school districts were required to report vaccination rates to the state. At that time, 47.60 percent of Luzerne County seventh-graders were not in compliance. The statewide average was 23.92 percent. In Lackawanna County, the rate was 36.49 percent.
At the kindergarten level, Luzerne County fared somewhat better with 17.25 percent of students out of compliance with the new vaccine mandates compared to 15.35 percent statewide. Lackawanna County schools were much worse at 25.30 percent.
Ted Kross, the director of the Wilkes-Barre Health Department, said if he were a parent of a student in those grades, "I would be very worried" by those figures.
But a doctor at a local Geisinger clinic said the figures the state is releasing "are completely inaccurate."
Dr. Gary Lawrence, at the Kistler Clinic, said while the data is what the state has to work with, he faults a breakdown in communication between students, school districts and the state as reasons why the figures are so high. He said school nurses and administrators need to make it a point to request vaccination documents to keep up-to-date files.
Holli Senior, a Department of Health spokeswoman, said she couldn't disagree with Lawrence's comments, and was hopeful the number of students not current on vaccinations is much lower. She said the point of the state highlighting those figures was to encourage parents to get their children immunized.
Lawrence said since the October report he has no doubt the vaccination rates went up as schools worked to comply with the state recommendations.
The state gave families several months starting from the first day of school in each district to come into compliance with the new vaccination requirements. The Department of Health has been reminding schools of the deadline, providing educational materials to schools and stakeholders, and offering vaccines to students who are underinsured or uninsured through its Vaccines for Children program.
"When the current school year began, families were given an eight-month provisional period to get their students up-to-date with their vaccinations," said Dr. Eli Avila, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health. "This period is coming to an end, so we are reminding families to make sure school-aged children are immunized."
Individual school districts make their own policies for students that aren't vaccinated. The state does not have authority to punish students, Senior said. She noted each school district could pass policies that range from removing students from school to sending letters home to explain the policy and the importance of the vaccinations.
New immunization regulations that took effect last August require children in all grades to receive a second dose of mumps vaccine as well as a second dose of the chicken pox vaccine.
They also require students in seventh grade to have one dose of meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4) and one dose of the tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis vaccine (Tdap). All vaccinations must be appropriately spaced to be considered valid.
The extra vaccinations bring Pennsylvania in line with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Senior said vaccinations "not only prevent disease in people who receive them, but also protect those who come in contact with unvaccinated individuals including those who are too young to be vaccinated or individuals who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons."
She noted that "while the U.S. has seen dramatic reductions in vaccine-preventable diseases, Pennsylvania, in recent years, has seen a resurgence of mumps, measles and pertussis – or whooping cough. The low levels of vaccine-preventable diseases at the national level show immunizations work as intended to keep children healthy by controlling the spread of infectious diseases."
In general, the state Department of Health says that all students in grades K-12 should have these vaccinations:
• Four doses of tetanus and diphtheria (one of each on or after fourth birthday)
• Three does of polio
• Three doses of Hepatitis B
• Two doses each for measles and mumps
• Two doses of varicella
• One dose of rubella
All students entering seventh grade should also have:
• One dose of meningococcal conjugate vaccine
• One dose of the tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis vaccine (if five years have elapsed since last tetanus immunizations)
Wilkes-Barre, with the assistance of the State Department of Health, has designed a vaccination clinic program that is free to greater Luzerne County students that need vaccinations:
• The Wilkes-Barre Health Department will be at Kistler Elementary School on Friday, between 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.
• On the same day the department will be at the Kirby Memorial Health Center between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. offering free chicken pox vaccine shots and a limited number of Tdap shots.
• The state's District Health Clinic, at 665 Carey Ave., Hanover Township, will hold extended vaccination clinic hours this week from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. offering MCV4, Tdap and the chicken pox vaccine. The following vaccinations also will be available: VAR, Polio, MMR and Hep B. Call 1-877 PA HEALTH to schedule an appointment.
• Children in need of the vaccines must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Advanced registration can be completed online at: http://www.wilkes-barrehealthclinics4U.com.