Why some parents opt out of vaccinations

health2With the recent outbreak of measles, attention has again turned to the issue of parents opting out of vaccinations for their children because of health concerns.

As of last week, 123 cases have been reported across the country this year. There were 644 last year, up from 37 a decade earlier.

Vaccination rates are especially low in several affluent parts of California, a state that allows “personal belief” exemptions. New York doesn’t have personal belief exemptions, but it does allow children to attend schools who aren’t vaccinated for medical or religious reasons.


Saugerties Times poll: Should anti-vaccine movement be blamed for for measles outbreak?

Saugerties School District vaccination rates are high — 97.7 percent fully vaccinated, 98.1 percent for measles. (A population needs to be above 95 percent to maintain herd immunity.)

The case is quite different with our neighbor to the west. In the Onteora School District, which includes Woodstock, Shandaken and Olive, the overall rate is just 90.6 percent, 91.1 percent for measles (the lowest total comes from Woodstock Elementary School, where just 86.5 percent are vaccinated for the measles.)

vaccination chart

Vaccinations are required for all children who attend public school unless parents get medical or religious exemptions. Despite our increasingly secular times, it’s the latter that’s cited most frequently — 1.6 percent in Saugerties and 7.7 percent in Onteora.

A medical exemption must be signed by a doctor and show that the vaccines would be detrimental to the health of a student. The other religious exemption requires a parent to claim they hold “genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to the requirement.”

(Possible reasoning provided by one website: “A conflict arises if you believe that man is made in God’s image and the injection of toxic chemicals and foreign proteins into the bloodstream is a violation of God’s directive to keep the body/temple holy and free from impurities.”)

It is up to the building principal, then, to approve the request.


Stopping the schedule

Opting out of vaccinations skyrocketed following a 1998 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet linked autism with the presence of the preservative thimerosal, which contains mercury, in the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination. Subsequent studies failed to replicate the result and the journal retracted the article in 2010.

But perhaps more persuasive for parents are the scores of anecdotes about a seemingly normal child who begins exhibiting signs of autism after being vaccinated.

When Saugertiesian Rayann Fatizzi’s son was an infant, she did not want to get him vaccinated. But she says she was pressured to do so by the staff at her pediatrician’s office. She said she was told that Child Protective Services could be called if she refused to immunize her son. “At that point I felt very nervous and caved in,” she said.

A day or so after receiving his MMR shot, her son began exhibiting a fever and lethargy. When she called the pediatrician to report the symptoms, she was told it wasn’t anything to worry about and would go away. Three days later, the symptoms were still there, and he began having seizures. Although the fever went away by the end of the week, he began acting strangely. He stopped making eye contact, stopped talking, and stopped trying to walk. Rather than engaging with his family, he would fixate on objects.

Fatizzi wondered what had happened to her little boy, who only six months prior had celebrated his first birthday laughing on a carousel ride. Eventually her son was diagnosed with autism.

She says she can never be sure if vaccination was the cause. But since then she has refused all shots. Her son is currently in junior high, and has made great strides. She says the district has not given her any trouble over waiving the requirement, since “anyone who knows me knows what happened.”


Concerns over safety

Another parent, who wished his name be kept anonymous, started researching the safety of vaccines when his wife was pregnant. As a nurse who has studied medicine himself, he says vaccines have a “sound principle” behind them, but his research on the agents called adjuvants which are added to the shots convinced him to keep his kindergartener unvaccinated. He says the chemicals are carcinogenic and can disrupt neural development, and he will not stand by “while someone puts poison into my son.”

He says he had to leave the medical practice where his child was being seen because he wasn’t supported in his decision. He wonders how many doctors and nurses have even read the warning labels on the vaccine inserts.

He believes, just as there was a time when cigarette smoking was considered safe, we will one day look back on this and realize these vaccines are not safe. This will take a lot of courage, he says, since any time someone in the medical community speaks out against vaccines, they are “throwing themselves into the fire.”

He says the religious exemption that he filed for his son presents its own challenges, since it can be scrutinized and rejected. He has not as yet had any problems with the school district accepting his waiver.


Trouble outside of school

In spite of an understanding school district, these parents face scrutiny over their choices in the community. Fatizzi said, for instance, that she refrains from commenting on vaccine posts on social media because of the negative comments she receives. The father of the kindergartener, too, says he and his wife get negative feedback when they post about their beliefs. He says he feels the media is trying to divide people intentionally, and is hurt when he hears people say they don’t want their children to play with unvaccinated children. He says he’s not looking for a fight, so he doesn’t go around telling his friends about his child’s status. He and his wife feel “pressure” to keep quiet about their choices.