Vaccine opt outs across state raise concerns

Last year about 1 percent of parents of Kansas kindergartners opted their children out of immunization shots. It’s a number state and local health officials don’t want to see grow.

More than half the states in the country have seen at least a slight rise in the rate of exemptions over the past five years, according to an Associated Press report last week. States with the highest exemption rates are in the West and upper Midwest.

While the 1 percent exemption rate in Kansas doesn’t seem like a lot, state epidemiologist Charles Hunt said the state tends to see exemptions concentrated in certain areas. Among the state’s nearly 800 schools, only 250 reported exemptions.

“This 1 percent is not necessarily evenly distributed throughout the state,” Hunt said.

At a Lawrence-Douglas County Health Board meeting this month, board members and health department director Dan Partridge expressed concern about a Wichita-based group lobbying to parents to opt out of vaccinations.

During the last legislative session, Kansans for Vaccine Rights introduced a bill to the House Health and Human Services Committee to add conscientious exemption to the reasons for parents to opt out of immunizations. Exemptions are already allowed on religious and medical grounds.

The bill never got out of committee, but Partridge said the group’s lobbying efforts have increased since the session ended.

“Our concern this year is they will have gathered enough momentum to get it out of committee and onto the floor for a vote,” Partridge said.

Leaders from Kansans for Vaccine Rights declined to speak to the Lawrence Journal-World but provided written information on their stance.

“Our group is not anti-vaccination, but rather pro-parental rights, pro-informed consent and pro-freedom of conscience,” they wrote. “Parents who are choosing to opt out or delay one, some or all of the required vaccinations have valid concerns and questions that are not being fully answered or resolved.”

The group said the bill will be reviewed again in the 2012 legislative session.

Nineteen states allow parents to exempt out of immunizations for conscientious, philosophical, medical or religious reasons. The group noted these states continue to have high average vaccination participation and low exemption rates. But Partridge said the decision to vaccinate is one that affects more than just the child — it’s a social obligation because a healthy, unvaccinated child could carry a disease to a more vulnerable, unvaccinated person, such as an infant.

“It’s not just about my child, my decision. It’s not an isolated consequence,” Partridge said.

Not that long ago, 450 people a year were dying from measles, Hib meningitis killed 600 children each year and polio caused up to 20,000 cases of paralysis.

Partridge said the risk of going unvaccinated is far greater than the risks associated with vaccines.

“There are risks,” he said. “But there are millions and billions of vaccines given in the world and the vast majority of complications are a sore arm or low-grade fever.”

Hunt said part of the concern has to do with the ever-increasing list of vaccines children are required to have before they can attend school.

“Things have gotten more complicated with the number of vaccines given, new vaccines developed, new schedules. Children are getting a lot of vaccines in the first years of life,” Hunt said.

These are the immunization requirements for children entering Kansas kindergartens this year:

• Four to five doses of diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis.

• Four doses of polio.

• Two doses of measles, mumps, rubella.

• Two doses of chicken pox.

• Three doses of hepatitis B.

• Doses of three other vaccines are required for children under 5 who are in early-childhood programs.

But Hunt also said that parents today are exposed to a lot more information — not all of which is accurate, he said — on vaccines and their effects.

Partridge believes people have forgotten about the devastation these diseases brought before there were vaccinations.

“It follows a whole bunch of other trends in society in kind of forgetting the lessons of the past,” Partridge said.

As for what can happen when children go unvaccinated, Partridge pointed to outbreaks of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, that occurred in Douglas County this year. In October, six cases were reported, four of which were from unvaccinated children. And in March, seven cases were reported, six of which were from unvaccinated children.

“We can’t let down our guard,” Partridge said.

By Christine Metz

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