By Karen Murphy

The United States has seen dramatic reductions in vaccine-preventable diseases over the past several decades. Unvaccinated children are at risk for many serious and life-threatening diseases.

The decline of vaccine-preventable disease cases proves that immunizations do exactly what they are intended to do: keep children and communities healthy by controlling the spread of infectious diseases.

The recent measles outbreak that infected children vacationing at California's Disneyland focused our attention on a potential public health crisis in our own backyard: Too few children are receiving potentially life-saving immunizations.

Despite a high-quality health-care system and wide availability of immunization programs, the commonwealth has among the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

In Pennsylvania, it is reported that only 86 percent of children entering kindergarten have the necessary vaccinations, compared with roughly 95 percent in the rest of the country. Pennsylvania is ranked 42d in the nation in measles, mumps, and rubella immunization rates.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is committed to increasing immunization rates among school-aged children and will be working closely with the Education Department to accomplish our goal.

We recognize that we must measure accurately what we hope to manage effectively. To that end, we will be taking a series of proactive steps to obtaining accurate, up-to-date vaccination data.

First, we will provide training and assistance in data entry for all school nurses.

Second, we will encourage electronic filing of data wherever possible.

Third, we will institute a rigorous process of validating the data we collect.

After compiling the data, we will create a strict, multilevel review process within the agency, requiring Health Department staff to compile data and identify any outliers - that is, schools with data that show unusually high or unusually low vaccination rates. We will conduct extensive follow-up and verify that data.

The biggest issue affecting Pennsylvania's efforts to achieve higher vaccination rates is the statewide policy of allowing provisional admission to school even if vaccination requirements are not met.

Pennsylvania is one of only two states that allow parents a period of eight months to immunize their child following the opening of kindergarten and seventh grade. This delay unnecessarily puts children at risk of contracting or transmitting a vaccine-preventable disease for almost the entire school year.

Immunizations are one of the most cost-effective preventive health measures. In order to prevent disease, children should receive recommended immunizations before entering school. Pennsylvania fortunately recorded only one case of measles this year - not connected to the Disneyland outbreak - but the agency will not wait for the next outbreak to act.

The Department of Health supports continued efforts to ensure that kindergartners and seventh graders have received vaccinations by the beginning of the school year. And we plan to work diligently with the Department of Education and health-care professionals to achieve our goal. This will not only increase immunization rates among children, but will also protect the health of students and the public.

The Health Department remains committed to furthering Gov. Wolf's goal of creating "Schools that Teach" across our commonwealth. With an intensified focus on improving our immunization rates, we will also realize "Healthy Schools that Teach" for children and families across our great commonwealth.

Karen Murphy is acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health (www.health.pa.gov).