Calling the shots: More Utah County parents exempting children from vaccinations

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She got her first series of immunizations as a child before her mother had her exempted from the state-mandated vaccine regimen.

Now 18, Sarah-Krystyne Eakle is a college student different from many of her peers because she was never inoculated against many infectious diseases and relies on her natural immunity to protect her.

Eakle’s mother is an example of a small number of parents who are opting out of having their children vaccinated.

Despite the benefits of vaccines, many local parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children.
Despite the benefits of vaccines, many local parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children. (Photo courtesy Photo stock exchange)

County-wide, exemption rates for childhood vaccines have been steadily increasing in recent years and reached almost 5 percent in 2013, according to the Utah County Health Department. While this number may not seem high enough to be significant, health officials are concerned about serious disease outbreaks if the trend continues.

Back to the basics

Some of the hesitation about vaccinations may be leftover from Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study that claimed the MMR vaccine led to autism. Though the study was later proven false, the claim seems to have taken hold in some conservative areas of Utah and not let go, said Chantel Sloan, assistant professor of health science at BYU.

“People tend to think low vaccine rates are linked to conservatism, but that’s not necessarily true,” Sloan said. “People are just concerned for their children’s’ health. … Utah is a very healthy state.”

Gene Cole, a professor of health sciences at BYU, said part of the hesitation toward vaccines comes from young parents who hear negative statements about immunizations in the media.

“A lot of young couples … have heard some negative information (about vaccines), which typically is not correct, and they say … ‘I’ve never seen a cause or heard of a case … so I just don’t think there’s a need for these vaccines anymore, especially if there may be negative health effects,’” Cole said.

Barbara Loe Fisher of the National Vaccine Information Center, said in a statement on the organization’s webpage, that while their organization does represent many families whose children have suffered adverse reactions to vaccines, they also have many supporters who are simply interested in making informed decisions for their families about vaccinations.

“Many parents, who support our work, are not philosophically opposed to the concept of vaccination and do not object to every vaccine,” Fisher explained. “However, they are philosophically opposed to government health officials having the power to intimidate, threaten and coerce them into violating their deeply held conscientious beliefs in the event they conclude that either vaccination in general or, more commonly, a particular vaccine is not appropriate for their children.”

A war against exemptions

With the numbers of parents seeking legal exemptions in Utah County steadily increasing, doctors and health officials are actively working to educate those who would seek an exemption.

“We take every opportunity we can get to publicize the importance of immunization,” said Margie Golden, school nursing supervisor at the Utah County Health Department. “We are trying to do all we can to reverse the trend by educating the public.”

Doctors are also taking every office visit their patients make as an opportunity to encourage vaccination as well as offering vaccine clinics in schools where it is convenient for a child to be vaccinated, said Russell J. Osguthorpe, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Rock Canyon Pediatric Specialists.

Ingri Cassel, director of the Vaccine Liberation Association, is part of the movement against vaccines. While health officials push for a larger percentage of the population to be vaccinated, her organization helps educate the public on the possible adverse reactions of vaccines and helps them obtain legal exemptions to vaccine mandates of all kinds.

“With the vaccine paradigm and the germ theory of disease being the foundation of modern medicine, it is extremely difficult for many to grasp the concept that medical doctors are merely glorified legal drug pushers who know very little about how the body actually works and what creates optimal wellness,” Cassel said.

Anticipating crisis

If the trend against vaccination continues, health officials are concerned major outbreaks are on the horizon.

“Ninety percent of the population needs to be immune in order for the population to be safe from an outbreak,” Osguthorpe said. “This year in Utah … we’ve seen the most pertussis cases that we’ve seen in the last 50 years … we are not immune as a herd. The choice that the children’s parents are making to not get vaccinated plays into that epidemic.”

The Utah County Health Department is also concerned about the growing trend and the possible future outcomes it presents.

“There is always a concern when individuals or parents choose to forego the best defense we have against preventable disease,” said Lance Madigan, public information officer for the Utah County Health Department.

“Some individuals believe there are better alternatives, or want to trust herd immunity. Unfortunately, vaccines are not 100 percent effective. … We would strongly encourage anyone considering exemptions to look at the long history of vaccination, and (its) effectiveness in preventing disease.”

Looking ahead

Now that she is an adult and has done her own research on vaccines, Eakle said she strongly agrees with her mother’s decision to seek a legal exemption.

“I don’t plan on vaccinating my children until they are matured, if ever,” Eakle said. “I feel like we have become a society where we vaccinate too often, and we vaccinate for everything. … The only reason I would become vaccinated, or allow my children to be, would be if it was a choice between living and dying.”