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The trouble with parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids

July 30, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
Kids will be heading back to school next month and kids are getting back to school shots, but more parents across the state are apparently refusing to get their kids vaccinated at all.

An Associated Press story today reports that 1.6 percent of public school students in North Dakota aren't vaccinated and 4.5 percent of private school students in the state aren't vaccinated. Parents can refuse to vaccinate based on moral, religious or philosophical objections. All states but West Virginia and Mississippi allow parents to refuse to vaccinate based on a religious and/or moral or philosophical reason. Some states only allow the religious exemption while others also allow moral or philosophical objections as North Dakota does.

A North Dakota health department official quoted in the AP story chalks vaccine refusals up to parents who think the shots cause autism, though all the research says that's not the case. Based on the comments I see online on different sites from parents who refuse to vaccinate, this is a crowd that tends to be suspicious of government and pharmaceutical companies and to place a high value on "natural" cures and alternative medicine. Some give some vaccines but not all of them and many advocate a "delayed vaccine schedule" to avoid overwhelming a baby's immune system with too many vaccines at once, even though the studies all say that kids can handle having multiple vaccines in one visit and a delay can put them at risk of getting a disease.

Parents get advice online from like-minded people about the best way to fake a religious objection in states that don't allow the philosophical exception and discuss what to tell doctors who won't keep seeing their kids as patients if they don't vaccinate. Some doctors, exasperated with vaccine refusals, "fire" the families from their practices or make the families sign a form acknowledging that they have been informed about the dangers of not vaccinating. Some families counter that by asking the doctor to sign a form guaranteeing the complete safety of vaccines and taking complete responsibility for any adverse vaccine reaction the child might have. Families with medically fragile children object to sitting in a waiting room with unvaccinated kids who might pass along diseases to their children. The vaccine debate can be pretty contentious.

While the numbers of parents in North Dakota who don't vaccinate are up slightly from a few years ago, they aren't as high as in some other areas. Earlier this year I read about a few schools in California where nearly half of all the students are not vaccinated. Waldorf schools seem to have the largest number of unvaccinated kids, though Montessoris are also high on the list. It probably stands to reason that parents who favor somewhat unconventional education for their children would also be in the anti-vaccine crowd.

In some cases, parents might have a legitimate reason not to vaccinate. If a child or the child's older sibling had a bad reaction to a vaccine, that would be a legitimate cause for concern. Some kids are medically fragile and cannot be vaccinated. The trouble is that when large groups of kids aren't vaccinated, the population no longer has herd immunity – protection from the spread of disease based on a large percentage of the population being vaccinated against it – and more people tend to get sick. Large groups of unimmunized kids have been blamed for outbreaks of measles and whooping cough. In rare cases, kids can die of these diseases.

In most cases I think the refusal to vaccinate is a bit selfish. Kids are disease factories, as I know from being around my nephews, and anyone who has close contact with them is bound to get sick with something or other. Vaccines are never 100 percent effective so some people will be at risk of catching the disease from a sick kid even if they have been vaccinated themselves. If you're healthy, this probably doesn't worry you, but if you're not, it should. Illnesses can take longer to recover from and cause more damage if your general health isn't top notch.

The bottom line is that people who don't get their kids vaccinated put the rest of the community at risk.


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