Health officials in several states are concerned about an increase in the number of school children heading to class without their recommended vaccines — a potential consequence of a vocal anti-vaccine movement that’s leading more parents to claim non-medical exemptions to their kids’ required inoculations.
In all 50 states, schools require students to get vaccinated for preventable diseases like measles, mumps, whooping cough, polio, and chicken pox before they enroll. But parents are increasingly obtaining a non-medical exemption to the requirement through a “philosophical objection” loophole. In some places, parents simply need to sign a form indicating that they’re personally opposed to vaccines, and their kid will still be allowed to attend school even without their shots.
Now, compared to just seven years ago, twice as many California parents are deciding against vaccinating their kindergartners, according to public health experts in the state. During the same time period, the number of Texas parents refusing vaccines increased threefold. In Iowa, the number of unvaccinated kids has more than tripled since 2000. Officials in Illinois, Oklahoma, Nevada, and Virginia have also recently raised concerns about the number of kids returning to school this fall who haven’t gotten their shots.
“We have schools in California where the percent of children who exercise the personal belief exemption is well above 50 percent,” Dr. Gil Chavez, the deputy director of the California Department of Public Health’s Center for Infectious Diseases, told the Los Angeles Times this week. “That’s going to be a challenge for any disease that is vaccine preventable.”
Fears about outbreaks aren’t simply hypothetical. This past year, California specifically has faced a record-breaking whooping cough epidemic, as well as several serious measles outbreaks. And across the country, preventable diseases that were once virtually eradicated in the United States have been making a comeback.
Nonetheless, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national rates of immunization are declining for many common childhood vaccines. As many as 40 percent of parents now choose to unnecessarily skip or delay their children’s recommended vaccinations.
The rising rates of parents objecting to shots has been tied to the persistent conspiracy theory that vaccines are not actually safe for children because they may contribute to some developmental disorders like autism. That myth, which can be traced back to a discredited study from the United Kingdom that’s since been withdrawn, has been widely debunked by a large body of scientific research confirming that the federal vaccine schedule is very safe. Despite the evidence, it’s proven difficult to change anti-vaccine parents’ minds. The adults who choose to delay their kids’ vaccines tend to be distrust scientists’ opinions on the subject — and even disease outbreaks among pockets of unvaccinated people aren’t necessarily enough to convince them otherwise.
A handful of states with particularly high vaccination refusal rates, like Oregon and Washington, have recently made it more difficult for parents to opt their kids out of vaccines by tightening the requirements for religious and philosophical exemptions. Some cities also have policies that allow schools to ban unvaccinated children from attending schools during outbreaks, when they’re susceptible to contracting and spreading potentially dangerous infectious diseases.
And this fall, public health officials and concerned parents are taking the opportunity to dispel myths about vaccines and encourage people to make sure their kids are up to date with their shots. “School-age children, from preschoolers, to middle schoolers, to college students, need vaccines,” the CDC proclaims on a special back-to-school section of its site. “Making sure that children of all ages receive all their vaccinations on time is one of the most important things you can do as a parent to ensure your children’s long-term health — as well as the health of friends, classmates, and others in your community.”