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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said vaccinations are the most important public health act in history, after safe drinking water.
But in the last few years, a growing number of parents and celebrities are choosing not to vaccinate their children, citing fears that vaccines can cause autism or other developmental delays.
And some parents and independent scientists say they worry vaccines might overload the immune system.
According to Dr. Steve Baum, medical director of U of L Pediatrics-Campbellsville, this type of reasoning is misguided and dangerous.
“Vaccines are extremely important,” Baum, also an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Louisville, said.
“Just in my short nine years of practice, I have been able to see the benefit of new vaccines. There are diseases that we just don’t see any more because of vaccines. I see the benefits of vaccines on a daily basis.”
Baum said that in the last decade, there has been an increase in measles and pertussis cases nationwide. He attributes much of this increase to unvaccinated and under-vaccinated children.
Dr. Christine Weyman, medical director of the Lake Cumberland District Health Department, said risk factors of vaccines are miniscule compared to the risk factors of disease.
Weyman, who became a doctor in 1982, said she has seen firsthand the dramatic effect vaccines have had on infectious diseases.
“When I did my pediatric residency [in 1982], we constantly took care of children with mumps and meningitis,” Weyman said. “Now we just don’t see it anymore.”
In order for a child to attend public school, state policy requires that they follow a vaccination schedule, which dictates which vaccines a child must have and when they have to have them.
“Counselors will send a letter home if a child is behind on shots and we’ll give them a length of time to get those shots,” Jeff Richardson, director of pupil personnel for Campbellsville Independent Schools, said.
Director of Pupil Personnel for Taylor County Schools Angela Cook said schools try to be understanding when a parent lets their child fall behind on the vaccination schedule.
“However, we have to protect our children,” she said. Cook said staff members will send letters and make phone calls to the child’s home.
“If that doesn’t work, I end up having to send them home and I have had to do that,” Cook said.
Because the forced absence is considered unexcused, the child could be declared truant, which could mean more trouble for parents.
“Fortunately, I’ve never had them stay out for more than two or three days.”
Richardson said the only acceptable reasons for not following the vaccination schedule are if a child has a medical condition confirmed by a physician or if the parents request exemption for religious reasons. This also must be approved by the child’s physician.
Lori Eubank, administrator of Kentucky Christian Academy, said they also follow the state guidelines.
“Some of our parents choose not to vaccinate for their religious beliefs, so we have a form for religious exemption, and we feel that it is the parent’s decision,” Eubank said. In order to keep their license, daycares must also comply with the state’s vaccination policy.
Rhonda Wray, director of the Campbellsville Child Development Center, said they have not had many issues with parents.
“We are required by the health department to have an immunization record on file,” Wray said. “Pretty much, they have to have it to be here.”
Wray said the daycare notifies parents when their child’s immunization status is about to expire so they can get the vaccination within the appropriate timeframe. Wray said she agrees with this policy.
“It’s just for the general well-being of the public,” Wray said. “Of the children here of course, by keeping the children immunized, it protects the health of everyone in the community.”
Baum said it is becoming a trend for parents to want to delay vaccinations until their child reaches a certain age.
He said what a lot people don’t realize is most vaccines are designed to prevent a disease that could occur at a certain time.
“Meningitis is deadly,” Baum said. “And certain types of meningitis occur at a certain age, so if the child gets the vaccine a year after what is medically advised, that is putting them at risk of contracting the disease.”
Baum said that there are some circumstances where it is acceptable to alter the vaccination if the parents are concerned about a specific vaccine.
“Sometimes parents say they want to wait before giving their child the Hepatitis B vaccine, and because it is only transmitted through IV or drug use, we are fine with waiting on that one,” Baum said. “But for the most part, the vaccine is targeting a certain disease at a certain age. Therefore you cannot wait.”
Weyman agrees. She said it’s important to stay on time and the reason vaccines are given so early is because that is the time children are at the highest risk.
“I think [all vaccines] are recommended because they’re meant to prevent illness,” Weyman said.
While not all vaccines are mandatory for school purposes, Weyman recommends that children get these also. She said that some parents believe their child does not need the chickenpox vaccine because they remember having chickenpox when they were children. However, Weyman said, most people aren’t aware that severe cases of chickenpox can be serious.
“Many children are hospitalized because of chickenpox,” Weyman said. “And it’s contagious so parents have to take off days from work or make other arrangements until the child is well enough to go back to school.”
When parents are reluctant to have their child vaccinated, it could put pediatricians like Baum in a difficult situation.
“We do the best that we can to educate the parents about the importance of vaccines,” Baum said. “We ask what their reasons are for not wanting to vaccinate because a lot of times it’s misconceptions that they’ve seen on the Internet or maybe something that a friend has told them.” Weyman said she agrees that this can be frustrating.
“If you get an icon of a person discussing their personal views, then people will often believe it,” she said. Baum said that because of things like work schedules, usually just one parent is present at the appointment. When the parent accompanying the child shows reluctance concerning vaccinations, Baum said, he explains the medical evidence and recommends the parent to go home and talk it over with the other parent. He said this is often all that is needed to solve the issue.
According to Baum and Weyman, negative attitudes toward vaccines are not as prevalent in Kentucky as they are in other areas.
“I would say it’s a small percentage locally that wants to either not vaccinate or deviate from the recommended vaccine schedule,” Baum said.
Weyman said, one child who dies from a vaccine-preventable disease is too many, and looking back to the epidemics of smallpox and polio is enough to prove how just critical vaccinations are to public health.
“The only way you can eradicate a disease is to have a vaccine.”