Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

September 18, 2012
Opting out of immunizations

When Lake Point resident Tiina Fridley was pregnant with her first child 20 years ago, she researched various child-raising topics as most expectant mothers do. However, one topic she researched really caught her attention: vaccinations.

“I originally saw an article about the dangers of mercury in vaccines over 20 years ago when I was pregnant with my first child,” Fridley said. “That prompted me to look into information about vaccines, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there. You can’t necessarily trust that your doctor will give you correct info, which is pretty sad. I came to the realization that the most important thing is immunity. Vaccination is not the same thing. Vaccinations don’t give immunity, which doctors will admit to, but they don’t volunteer that info.”

Fridley decided not to immunize her three children, now ages 19, 12 and 10. She’s not alone in that decision. In 2011, a total of 89 exemption forms were submitted to the Tooele County Health Department by parents to opt their kids out of receiving required vaccinations before school starts. So far this year, 74 exemption forms have been turned in.

Although it is a requirement across the board for all students to be vaccinated before starting school, exemptions are allowed for personal, medical or religious reasons. In Tooele County, the exemption forms are $15 each.

“Parents can fill out an exemption form at their local health department and take it to the school. It allows their child to attend school without being vaccinated,” said Rich Lakin, senior research analyst for the Utah Immunization Program at the Utah Department of Health. “About 95 to 97 percent of parents who choose to exempt their kids do it for personal reasons.”

Lakin said the most common reasons he’s heard are that people feel like immunizations may cause illness or they don’t have health insurance.

“Some also feel that immunizations cause mental problems with their children, or that the immunization schedule is too close together,” he said. “Some have their own schedule they like to follow.”

Sherrie Ahlstrom, family and school health supervisor for the Tooele County Health Department, said when a parent comes in to fill out an exemption form, the health department gives them an extensive education on the vaccines and why they are important.

“We want to make sure they really understand vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases,” Ahlstrom said. “If there was a communicable disease released in school that is vaccine preventable, we [the health department and Tooele County School District] would exclude their children from school during that time. They need to understand those rules.”

Lakin said the state exemption rate for 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, was 3.7 percent. In Tooele County in 2010, the rate was 1.9 percent. That rate is lower than in previous years. In 2009, the exemption rate in the county was 2.5 percent and in 2008 it was 3.9 percent.

“I don’t know why it has gone down,” Lakin said. “Tooele County has one of the lowest exemption rates in 2010 in the state. Maybe more parents got insurance that covers the vaccinations in the last couple of years. Some just don’t have the insurance to cover it, so they opt out.”

If someone does not have insurance, the out-of-pocket cost for each shot given is around $15, said Lakin.

The rate of opt-outs that would compromise the whole immunization program varies for each disease, according to Lakin. A highly contagious illness, such as measles, has to have a 90 percent or higher immunization rate in any given school to prevent it from spreading.

Current state law requires all students to have a series of vaccinations before starting school. These vaccinations include immunizations against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps and rubella. Students are also required to have additional vaccinations before they enter the seventh grade, including the Tdap booster to once again protect them against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.

“We’ve been seeing a trend where those that are more educated are going on the Internet and educating themselves on immunizations, but sometimes they’re not getting reliable info,” Lakin said.

Some local moms, however, feel that doing their own research benefits their kids.

Grantsville resident Hollie Hendricks has six children ages 12, 11, 10, 8, 5 and 3. She home schools her two oldest children while the three younger, school-age children attend Excelsior Academy. Hendricks has decided to opt out of vaccinating her children on a set schedule.

“We did a lot of research,” Hendricks said. “We also knew people we were friends with who had some difficulties with their families. We had a neighbor in Las Vegas that had a daughter who two weeks after her MMR immunization began to suffer from autism.”

For these reasons, and her own family’s history of lupus, bipolar disorder and depression, Hendricks said she and her husband decided that it would be safer to immunize her children one vaccine at a time.

“We do it on our own schedule,” she said. “We wait until after they’re 3 years old, and we start immunizing them between ages 4 and 5 before kindergarten. We do one immunization at a time. With the younger ones, we didn’t even do the combo MMR. We did measles, then mumps, then rubella. When we get each vaccine, we wait sometimes up to a year to make sure they’re OK and it doesn’t look like it affected them in any physical or mental way.”

Hendricks feels it’s important for every family to do research individually to see what’s been discovered about immunization schedules from a number of different studies.

“We’ve found all of our doctors were very supportive,” Hendricks said. “They gave us info and talked with us about our options. They were willing to listen and understand our situation, medical history and understand our feelings on the matter. I’m very grateful we’ve had the freedom to choose.”

Even though her children haven’t been vaccinated on a typical schedule, Hendricks only takes her kids to the doctor for illnesses about three times a year, she said.

“We get the general sniffles, and we do get sick, but we haven’t had anything really severe that we’ve had to worry about,” she said.

Fridley’s research has prompted her to not vaccinate any of her children. Her oldest child attended schools in Davis and Tooele counties, and graduated from Stansbury High School. Her two younger children are homeschooled.

“There’s a lot of hype that vaccinating children makes them safe, but it’s false security,” Fridley said. “Nothing gives immunity. For me it became risk management. Not all childhood diseases are manageable, so I looked at them individually to see which ones were serious and which ones I wouldn’t mind my kids getting vaccinated for. I have ended up not using vaccinations at all.”

Fridley said she’s learned that the only way to know if a vaccine took was to have a blood test taken to see if the antibodies against the disease have developed after getting the vaccine. She said for her, having her children go through the illness has always been the preferable option. The only real sickness any of her children have had was when her oldest child got chickenpox as a toddler.

Fridley feels there is a need for a lot more education when it comes to vaccinations.

“There are some vaccinations that I can see as beneficial in certain circumstances, but the wholesale way we’re doing it is not effective,” she said. “Babies don’t need to be immunized for hepatitis B. The only way you can get that is from dirty needles or being sexually promiscuous, so why are we vaccinating them? Mumps aren’t very serious unless you’re a teenage boy. So why not just vaccinate all boys at age 12 instead?”

Lakin said the risks of getting vaccinated are very minimal compared to a child contracting hepatitis B or mumps.

“They may not die from mumps, but hospital-related illnesses are very expensive compared to a vaccine,” Lakin said. “Our opinion is that vaccines have been one of the best ways to reduce childhood diseases. From looking at various studies, I’ve seen great things from vaccines. I think they provide a great public service in protecting our children.”

Fridley also doesn’t have her children participate in annual flu shot vaccinations.

“When I first heard about flu shots, I knew that it wouldn’t be effective,” she said. “You can’t stop it each year because it’s a different flu virus. The Center for Disease Control admits they are guessing on which viruses come around each year. I don’t want to go through the hassle and money to only get 20 percent or so worth of protection.”

Lakin said although the flu virus does change every year, the CDC is the gold standard when it comes to creating an effective vaccine.

“The CDC is seeing what’s happening in the other hemisphere when their flu season hits because eventually it spreads to us in our hemisphere in the winter,” Lakin said. “The CDC does a good job in trying to make sure our flu is matched up with the shot. There is a chance that it’s not going to match up 100 percent, but it’s very rare.”

According to the Utah Department of Health, children receive 25 shots by the time they are 18 months old. Fridley feels like this number is far too high. However, Lakin said the number of vaccinations available to children shows an amazing achievement.

“It should be commonly known that immunizations are good,” Lakin said. “They are one of the greatest public health achievements ever. Before the 1900s, children died from measles, mumps and smallpox, and now we’re seeing very few children that die from those vaccine-preventable diseases. We’re seeing a comeback in a few now though, like measles, because parents are opting out or exempting their children.”

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