Childhood Vaccinations: A Prickly Issue
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Getting an exemption in Connecticut is surprisingly easy. A medical exemption for any number of reasons—allergic reactions to the vaccine, pediatric cancer, immune disorders—simply requires a written statement from a physician. Exemptions based on religion, which are granted much more frequently, and often used as a pretext, require only that a parent or guardian give the school nurse a signed note (which is then filed with the DPH) stating that the family’s religious beliefs prohibit vaccinations. These exemptions are not checked or challenged.
The increase in exemptions is worth noting, but not alarming, according to Kathy Kudish, vaccine coordinator and supervising epidemiologist with the DPH. “A number under 2 percent is relatively insignificant,” she says. “We’re just keeping our eye on it.”
“We know that the vast majority of children [in the U.S.] are having some vaccines,” says Shannon Stokely, an associate director with the Immunization Services Division of the CDC. “Exemptions don’t necessarily mean a child has never had any vaccines. They may have just missed one dose. We can’t distinguish between children having none or just a few.”
Laura George of Seymour is a school psychologist and mother who says that at first she was “on the fence” and skeptical of the state’s vaccine regimen with her first two children. “I read the news and worried there might be a risk, but then I took a close look at the studies [that pointed to ill effects from vaccines] and wasn’t convinced they were valid,” George says. “I think the research was flawed, and I know it’s important to get your information from multiple sources. So when my third child was born, my husband and I agreed it was more important to protect her.” George has kept up with all of her kids’ vaccinations since then because she says she trusts her instincts, and perhaps more importantly, her doctor.
Most physicians maintain that vaccinations are safe and an important part of protecting a child’s overall health. “It can be challenging. We have to weigh [concern about the risks] against the seriousness of getting a disease,” says Vasanth Kainkaryam, an internist and pediatrician at Hartford Hospital.
He advises parents hesitant to have their kids vaccinated to “learn about the diseases they prevent, what we’re trying to do with the vaccine and why we’re asking you to do this in the first place. Sometimes it helps to step away from the shot part of it.”
Stepping as far away from the process as possible is a divorced mother from Trumbull whose children asked that the family not be named. Her ex doesn’t share her views, so she worries that her decision not to vaccinate may present legal or custodial issues. “Vaccines are an emotional topic, especially when children become ill and the parents believe the vaccine is responsible,” she says. Years ago, keenly observant of her babies’ health following their vaccines, she began charting their ear infections, eating habits and periods of listlessness. She didn’t like the patterns that emerged. It prompted her to take a close look at what went into the vaccines her doctor was recommending, and she ultimately decided they were “mostly toxic” and not beneficial to her children’s health and well-being. She stopped vaccinating her children almost a decade ago, with no regrets.
Her argument against vaccinations includes concerns about ethical research and a push by the pharmaceutical industry to market unnecessary drugs; she feels vindicated by experience since her children have never been healthier. “Most of us trust our doctors, and most doctors have never taken the time to do the research,” she says. “They just follow the guidelines they’ve been given . . . until something bad happens and they can easily connect the dots.”
But Kainkaryam says he’s seen what happens when unvaccinated children get sick—and it isn’t pretty. “We see it when things get bad,” he says, “when a pediatric patient in the ICU dies from pertussis, for example.” Of all preventable diseases, cases of pertussis, aka whooping cough, are of most concern to health-care professionals. A highly contagious bacterial disease, pertussis leads to severe coughing that causes children to make a distinctive whooping sound as they gasp for air. Complications include respiratory ailments, and in rare cases, especially among children under 2, it can be fatal. There were 183 cases in Connecticut last year, “more than we’ve seen in over a decade,” says Kudish at the DPH. “Luckily, we had no fatalities. Other parts of the country experienced worse than we did. But we had concerns. We try to control it where we can, following up with kids who have not been vaccinated.”