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Public health vs. parent choice: The vaccination debate in Arizona

Posted 5/21/19

By Veronica Graff

Cronkite News

PHOENIX — Health officials warn that vaccination rates are deteriorating across Arizona, risking public health as parents continue to opt out of …

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Public health vs. parent choice: The vaccination debate in Arizona


By Veronica Graff

Cronkite News

PHOENIX — Health officials warn that vaccination rates are deteriorating across Arizona, risking public health as parents continue to opt out of immunizations.

Immunization levels in the past year fell further below the necessary rate to guarantee community protection against the outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases. The reason: Personal exemptions from vaccinations are on the rise, according to state data and a Cronkite News analysis.

Populations throughout Arizona are most vulnerable in areas where personal exemptions are favored, experts say.

“If we got rid of the personal exemption, I have no doubt vaccination rates would go up pretty substantially and we would be at a much lower risk of having the kinds of outbreaks that we’re seeing,” said Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association.

Arizona Department of Health Services records and a Cronkite News data analysis shows:

Kindergarten students with personal exemptions from all vaccines have doubled in four years.

Public health officials consider kindergarten immunization levels a marker of community protection, and the drop in vaccination rates put the state at risk for an outbreak.

Herd immunity, a cocoon around a community that protects people from formerly devastating diseases like measles, is faltering in more than half of Arizona’s 15 counties.

Personal exemptions rise in northern Arizona. In Yavapai County, only 83% of kindergarteners are vaccinated, while Yuma County has the highest rate of immunizations at 97.3%.

Vaccination rates have dropped across schools statewide, with personal exemptions for kindergarteners rising to 5.9% from 4.5% since the 2015/16 school year.

Across the U.S., outbreaks of measles have reached a record high — more than 700 cases — since the disease was eradicated two decades ago. Rockland County in New York imposed a quarantine, and in March declared a county-wide state of emergency, barring anyone who was unvaccinated from entering public places for 30 days or until receiving the MMR vaccination.

Vaccine advocates aren’t sure why immunizations are dropping, but parents across the U.S. are increasingly opting out as public trust in institutions and experts erodes, fears about vaccine safety rise and state legislators create a sort of no-vaccine friendly zone. Arizona is one of 17 states allowing personal-belief exemptions from vaccines.

Arizona requires students in school to be vaccinated and the health department collects and reports information for students in child-care centers, kindergarten and sixth grade.

State law allows exceptions: religious exemptions for child care, preschool and Head Start programs, medical exemptions that require a document verifying the vaccine could harm the child, and personal belief exemptions, which require no reason be given. Medical exemptions have stagnated as personal exemptions have risen steadily.

Dueling bills introduced in the Legislature this year have either tried to remove the personal exemption or tried to expand exemptions.

Heather Wolcott and her husband, Jeff, have chosen not to vaccinate their two children because of safety concerns. She likens government officials’ statements of a public-health threat to a sky-is-falling message.

“It’s like Russian roulette, you just don’t know what you’re getting. To me, that’s way more threatening than my kids getting the measles,” said Ms. Wolcott, who lives in the Ahwatukee Foothills section of Phoenix.

Jacquelyn Phillips of Gilbert, who’s also a parent, said community health matters.

“It absolutely baffles me that my peers don’t vaccinate,” she said. “I worry what public health will look like in the coming years.”

For most health professionals, the solution is simple: get vaccinated. But the entanglement of family, community and choice has turned vaccinations into one of the most divisive – some say dangerous – public health issues this year.

Read the full Cronkite News story here.