With growing numbers of Michigan parents choosing not to have their children receive vaccinations required for children to attend school, state health officials want to make sure parents are making informed choices.
Beginning Jan. 1, parents choosing a non-medical waiver of state required vaccinations against diseases like measles, mumps, rubella and others must have that waiver certified by a local health department after an educational meeting with a medical professional. The brief educational meetings are intended to insure that parents receive credible medical information before making critical decisions regarding their children’s health.
The new rule was approved by the state after diseases nearly eradicated by vaccination reappeared in recent months including a pertussis outbreak in Grand Traverse County that in Nov. shut down a 1,200-student charter school there. The outbreak infected students in 14 other school buildings, health officials have said.
A wealth of myths and misinformation about vaccinations spread on the Internet, by celebrities and other-than-credible sources, has led to Michigan having a vaccination waiver rate of 6.3 percent, the nation’s fourth highest. Nationwide some 1.8 percent of students receive waivers. The Traverse City school where the pertussis outbreak occurred had a 17 percent waiver rate.
“All that has been very damaging,” said Mary Wisinski, immunizations program supervisor for the Kent County Health Department. “We’re seeing a huge resurgence of vaccine preventable diseases with the biggest outbreaks of measles we’ve seen in years.
“We’ve kind of become a victim of our own success because people don’t see these diseases anymore so they’ve forgotten how devastating they can be and become more likely to believe things they read on the Internet,” Wisinski added.
Michigan is one of 20 states allowing parents to waive school vaccinations for other than medical necessity, but other states have stricter requirements for obtaining waivers. The new Michigan requirements are similar to those adopted in California and Washington which require health professionals to also sign a form saying parents have been informed of the risks of not vaccinating their child.
Arkansas and Minnesota require the waiver be notarized. Vermont recently started requiring parents to review online material and to renew the waiver each year. In Michigan, parents seeking waivers also must sign the state approved form indicating they understand they may be putting their child’s health at risk by refusing to immunize them. States where it’s harder to obtain waivers have higher rates of immunization, but Michigan and Kent County officials say better educated parents will make better choices.
“That’s why we’re trying to get parents the information rather than having them rely on rumor and sensationalism on the Internet,” said Dr. Rose Ramirez, president-elect of the Michigan State Medical Society. “Some parents are anxious about whether vaccines can harm their children but once they come in and find out that some of the childhood illnesses we’re vaccinating against can cause their children more harm than the risk related to the vaccines, they choose the vaccination.”
Sarah Hernandez, a registered nurse with the health department, noted many parents she’s counseled with concerns about vaccinating their children haven’t thought about the long-term consequences of not doing so. She added most major colleges and universities require students be vaccinated so those who weren’t vaccinated to enter kindergarten may find themselves forced to accept them later in life.
“A lot of parents still object to the chickenpox vaccine because they still believe getting the actual disease is better,” Hernandez said. “What they don’t realize is that if their child gets chickenpox they’re far more susceptible to getting shingles later in life.”
To help insure parents have access to credible information from medical professionals who can answer questions based on individual circumstances, Kent County health officials are offering 15-minute sessions at any of their four locations. For Ramirez, the message is simple.
“It’s a responsibility to your community to immunize your children,” she said. “Unless we have a certain number of children with immunizations, you are putting your entire community at risk.”