Private School Parents Opt Out of Vaccines at Higher Rate

In a worrying development, the Associated Press analysis has found that California parents who sent their children to private schools are much more likely to opt out of immunizations than those whose children attend public schools.

USA Today publishes that the numbers of parents opting their children out of vaccinations is growing, despite the fact that illnesses that have long been considered eradicated in the part of the country, like whooping cough, have reemerged as the result of lowered immunity.

The AP analysis is based on the data collected by California, which keeps track of the rates of immunizations in all its kindergartens that enroll at least ten students. The findings show that private school students skip immunizations, at their parents' behest, at twice the rates of the public school cohort. This is an additional concern for California public health officials who have already expressed worry that the number of students entering private schools without all their shots have jumped by 10% in recent years, while the number of public school students similarly unprotected has remained steady in the same period.

According to the data, fewer than half the kids were fully immunized at 110 California private kindergartens. At one, the Highland Hall Waldorf School in Northridge, 84% of students weren't fully up on their scheduled shots.

Public health officials believe that an immunization rate of at least 90 percent in all communities, including schools, is critical to minimizing the potential for a disease outbreak. About 15 percent of the 1,650 private schools surveyed by the state failed to reach that threshold, compared with 5 percent of public schools.

There's nothing new about the reasons used by parents to justify opting out of vaccinations. They range from the belief that allowing children to acquire immunity by getting sick makes their immune systems stronger, to faulty understanding of the risks inherent in the shots themselves. What is more difficult to answer is why it is the parents who send their children to private schools that overwhelmingly seem to share these beliefs.

Saad Omer, a professor of global health at Emory University in Atlanta who has studied vaccine refusal in private schools, surmised more private school parents are wealthy and have the time to spread five shots over a series of years and stay home should their child get an illness like chickenpox. Neal Halsey, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins University, said parents who choose private schools are likely to be more skeptical of state requirements and recommendations.

Halsey's observations are certainly borne out by Bibi Reber, whose children attend Greenwood School in Mill Valley — which has a 79% vaccination-refusal rate. Reber believes in only vaccinating her kids for the diseases she classifies as "most deadly," and while Reber doesn't think that children would be stronger from reappearances of sicknesses like polio, it wasn't necessary to protect them from every disease that typically afflicts youngsters.

Public health officials, however, are less concerned with the conclusions drawn by amateur scientists like Reber but are more worried about the growing frequency of outbreaks of diseases like whooping cough.

"We're very concerned that those schools are places where disease can spread quite rapidly through the school and into the community, should it get introduced," said Dr. Robert Schechter, medical officer with the Immunization Branch of the California Department of Public Health.

09 19, 2012
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