Immunization rates falling in Park City
In increasing numbers, parents living in Park City are opting out of immunizing their children, and not for the usual reasons such as medical or religious grounds.
To attend public schools in Utah, students are required to either be fully immunized or request an exemption based on medical, religious or philosophical reasons. Park City parents are taking full advantage of the philosophical option, a choice only available in 19 other states across the country.
According to the Summit County Health Department, immunization exemption requests for philosophical reasons increased an average of 2.1 percent each year from 2007 to 2011, a total of a 4.2 percent increase over the four-year period.
"A survey was done by the department several years ago where we asked parents to fill out this brief questionnaire in regards to reasons for exemptions," said Carolyn Rose, the Summit County Health Department Nursing Director. "The one that came up at the top was philosophical. That means parents don’t believe the vaccinations are necessary."
A number of parents have decided against the MMR vaccine which prevents the measles, mumps and rubella, as well as the pertussis vaccine which prevents the whooping cough.
"These are two diseases that spread very rapidly," Rose said, "and a lot of these childhood diseases are only under control because of the vaccinations, not because of natural immunity."
The average American baby has had 18 inoculations by the time he or she is six months old, a total of 24 vaccines for nine communicable diseases, according to the CDC.
"I see all sorts of patients who believe different things," said Thaddeus Jacobs of Summit Integrative Medicine, a local practice specializing in natural and integrated medicine. "Some of patients’ beliefs are based on science, and for others, it’s about the lack of science and safety with immunizations."
The typical unvaccinated child in Park City is described as a white male from a high-income household with a married, college-educated mother, a report from the health department stated.
Some parents may be relying on the ‘herd immunization theory," a belief that with enough immunized in the mass population, immunizations are unnecessary. But Rose said it is a dangerous game to play, with more than one child’s health at stake. Unimmunized children, while they may not die if they contract a more severe communicable disease, run a greater risk of passing the disease on, especially to children with compromised immune systems.
"Your kid may be healthy, but if your kid gets the disease and gets it bad enough, then they give it to a child who is immunocompromised or who has lung issues or who is going through cancer therapy, they are putting those kids at risk too," Rose said.
"I was talking to one mom about a pertussis outbreak that happened in California a couple of years ago," Rose said. "She told me ‘I don’t know. Only six kids died out of thousands.’ I told her ‘That may be true, but what if your kid was one of the six? How would you feel?’ Parents have a hard decision to make, but as long as they get all of the information, not just part of it, they can really weigh the odds."
Vaccines remain the most effective way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials , preventing many diseases that are no longer common in the U.S. But nonmedical vaccination exemptions are on the rise, a fact that is especially true in areas that allow exemptions for religion or philosophy.
Doctor Brian Rush, a physician with the Mountain Family Health, said it is a problem he sees first hand.
"It does happen, parents who don’t want to immunize," Rush said. "We try to counsel them out of it but I’d say by time we’re getting to talk with them, they’ve made up their mind and it’s not very a productive conversation."
"Although there are some risks with immunizations, not immunizing is a much greater risk for the children and for the community," he added. "My kids are all immunized."
In 1998, a study was released that linked the MMR vaccine to Autism. Andrew Wakefield, the doctor and researcher based in the United Kingdom, believed the three-in-one injection was dangerous, according to The New York Times.
He was later discredited major conflicts of interest in his research were uncovered but his claims still held with concerned parents even after all mercury was removed from shots except the annual flu shot.
Because Park City has a higher volume of tourists, including international tourists that may be traveling from areas where certain diseases are not as rare as the U.S., Rose said she worries about what could be brought in to the area. The CDC has issued warnings for measles outbreaks in London, a potential issue for those planning to attend the Olympic Games this summer.
"All the measles cases in the past year were brought in from overseas, from people traveling," Rose said. "You can think we are OK because we live in a small community, but we’re not because we’re still open to the rest of the world."
United States Immunization Rates: States range between 1% and 6.5% immunization exception rates. (CDC, 2012)
Utah Exemption Immunization Rate for Kindergarten:
Exemptions for Kindergarten by School District:
South Summit: 4.3%
North Summit: 2.9%
Park City: 6.6%
Information provided by the Utah State Immunization Registry
19 States that allow Immunization Exemptions for Philosophical Beliefs: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington (with the highest state immunization exemption rate at 6.5%) and Wisconsin
The characteristics of an unvaccinated child are male, white, a married college educated mother, and coming from a higher income household.
As of 2009, all 50 states and the District of Columbia permitted medical exemptions from immunization requirements, 48 states allowed religious exemptions, and 20 allowed exemptions based on philosophical or personal beliefs.
Information provided by the Summit County Health Department, the CDC and by ASHTO
Anita Lewis, Brent Ovard and Travis English were influential in shaping how residents interact with the county.