Calling Their Own Shots: Parents Seek Vaccine Exemptions
Over the past five years, more and more parents in half the states in the US have been choosing not to have their children receive required vaccines. In eight states, more than 1 out of 20 kindergartners do not get their school shots for medical, religious or philosophical reasons.
The immunization schedule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians now recommends that children receive 25 shots in their first 18 months of life, a higher number than ever. The sheer number of shots is causing some parents to hesitate about having to yet again hold onto a weeping child shrinking from a needle. Some parents think that the risks of vaccinating are greater than not; others “find it easier to check a box opting out than to get the shots and required paperwork.” Some parents have chosen not to have their children receive any vaccinations; others have their children receive some of the older shots such as the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella), and opt out of one or two shots, such as that for chickenpox or some of the newer ones (such as that for HPV).
States in the West and in the Upper Midwest had the highest exemption rates, an Associated Press survey found:
For its review, the AP asked state health departments for kindergarten exemption rates for 2006-07 and 2010-11. The AP also looked at data states had previously reported to the federal government. (Most states do not have data for the current 2011-12 school year.)
Alaska had the highest exemption rate in 2010-11, at nearly 9 percent. Colorado’s rate was 7 percent, Minnesota 6.5 percent, Vermont and Washington 6 percent, and Oregon, Michigan and Illinois were close behind.
Mississippi was lowest, at essentially 0 percent.
The AP found 10 states had exemption rate increases over the five years of about 1.5 percentage points or more, a range health officials say is troubling.
Those states, too, were in the West and Midwest – Alaska, Kansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. Arizona saw an increase that put that state in the same ballpark.
In some rural areas of northeastern Washington, rates for exemptions from vaccines have risen above 20 percent and even as high as 50 percent.
A new study published in the journal Pediatrics has found that 61 percent of more than 200 pediatricians surveyed in Washington state agreed to parents’ requests to space out or delay vaccines. Doctors are most likely to consider postponing hepatitis B; varicella (chickenpox), and polio vaccines for four months or more. But doctors insist on giving these vaccines on schedule: Hib (which prevents meningitis and pneumonia); pneumococcal immunization (which prevents pneumonia and ear infections) and DTaP (which protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough).
What gives? The study authors suggest that doctors are engaged in a tricky balancing act. “Primary care physicians should be recognized for seeking to immunize their patients against common and devastating diseases of infancy while maintaining a therapeutic alliance with parents,” the authors [of the study] wrote.
In other words: We’ll bend a bit so we don’t alienate parents. But we’re going to make darned sure kids get their shots.
When it comes to their own kids, 96 percent of the surveyed pediatricians said they would stick to the recommended vaccination schedule.
Many of the parents seeking exemptions are convinced that the diseases their children could get from a vaccine are worse than the diseases the vaccines are protecting a child from. Sabrina Paulick of Ashland, Oregon, and the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, says, “I don’t think vaccines are what saved the world from disease”; she attributes advances in public health to “effective sewer systems, nutrition and hand-washing.” Claims of a “connection” between autism and the MMR made by the British doctor Andrew Wakefield in 1998 continue to influence parents, even though the medical journal, The Lancet, that originally published Wakefield’s study has retracted it; scientists have pointed out that his research was fraudulent; more and more evidence refutes a vaccine-autism link.
Childhood vaccinations are definitely a topic evoking a great deal of emotion. Parents who have chosen not to vaccinate have often invested significant time and energy in searching for information about vaccines and their potential dangers. It only takes one account of a child “injured” after receiving immunizations to make a parent wary.
Jennifer Margulis, a mother of four who also lives in Ashland, simply states that ”Many of the vaccines are unnecessary, and public health officials don’t honestly know” what the effects of giving all those vaccines are to small children. Parents who make such claims about “vaccine safety” have the upper hand over scientists talking about the technicalities of herd immunity (when a significant portion of a population is immunized against a disease and therefore provides protection for those who are not immunized). What parent isn’t worried about keeping their children safe? A survey published in Pediatrics in October found that 1 out of 10 parents say they have delayed or skipped some vaccines for their children.
But 10 infants died of whooping cough last year in California, which saw 2,100 cases of the disease; only one child had receive their first dose of the vaccine. Measles rates are also at their highest in 15 years in the US. Autism is not an infectious disease; is not life-threatening, like measles or whooping cough. Seeking to keep a child safe by postponing or opting out of vaccines may seem best, but is it?
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