Barry Saunders

September 3, 2014

Saunders: Don’t be a sucker – get your kids vaccinated

Schools and parents need to remain vigilant to prevent the return of diseases once considered wiped out.

Somebody owes me a sucker.

Somebody also owes young children entering school for the first time a fighting chance against diseases that could impede, ruin or end their lives.

I didn’t get the sucker, but at least I got that chance.

Here’s the deal:

On the day before my first day of first grade school, Mr. John Bostick loaded a bunch of neighborhood tykes onto the back of his pickup truck and took us to the health department to get our vaccination shots.

The nurse asked if I were going to be a big baby and cry when I got stuck.

Yes, ma’am, I said, not having yet learned to lie.

If you don’t cry, she said, I’ll give you a lollipop.

Guess what? They played me for a sucker over a sucker.

No lollipop was forthcoming.

Guess what else?

For too many parents, no vaccinations are forthcoming, either. That has led to the re-emergence in some parts of the country of diseases we thought we would only read about in the history books.

A Los Angeles Times story this week said that California parents are deciding against vaccinating their kindergarten-age children at twice the rate they did seven years ago. That has led, public health experts said, to the re-emergence of measles across the state and may lead to outbreaks of other serious diseases.

Mercifully for us in North Carolina, the percentage of parents seeking exemptions to getting their children immunized is low. However, even one sick kid who hasn’t been immunized can create havoc in a classroom full of kids who in the best of times are little two-legged petri dishes of contagious stuff.

Among the reasons cited for not immunizing children is a distrust of government, a New Age style of parenting and a perceived link between immunizations and autism.

The autism argument

David Laxton has heard that last one many times before. Laxton, spokesman for the Autism Society of North Carolina, said he regularly receives telephone calls from worried parents asking whether they should get their tots immunized. He said “there are pockets where there is almost an active movement against immunizations.

“I had a person contact me one time. She said, ‘I need to know of a doctor who will not make me vaccinate my child.’ I asked her how old is her child. She said, ‘I’m only six months pregnant.’ I said, ‘Whoa!’”

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services lists on its website – www.immunize.nc.gov – ways parents can obtain medical, religious or personal belief exemptions from immunizations for their children. On the website, it states that “Statements of religious objection to immunization do not need to be notarized, signed by a religious leader, or prepared by an attorney. They do not need to be submitted to the state for review or approval.”

So you just go in there and say “I object” on religious grounds and you’re cool?

Wow.

‘Cluster together’

Shannon Stokley, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, told me Wednesday that the percentage of North Carolina parents seeking exemptions was less than 1 percent in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available.

“What we find is that people who seek exemptions frequently cluster together geographically,” she said. “At the state level, when it’s averaged out across all the schools, you may see a very low number, but there may be certain areas across the state that have a higher rate” of parents obtaining exemptions.

Laxton, of the Autism Society, said he can understand some of the skepticism.

“When you look at the age of diagnosis (of autism), a lot of times it overlaps with a period of time” when children are immunized, he said. “That sometimes makes it seem like a cause-and-effect. The preponderance of information out there says this is not something that causes autism, and it’s better to have your child vaccinated versus not.”

A healthy skepticism is a good thing when it comes to their children’s health, but when there is no evidence linking vaccines to autism, parents shouldn’t put everyone else’s children at risk.

“Vaccines are very safe,” Stokley said, “and they’ve helped prevent so many diseases and done so much to keep our children healthy. This year we’ve seen the largest measles outbreak” – yes, measles – “that we’ve seen for quite some time. That happened because some people traveled outside the country and acquired measles and when they came back, they introduced it into their community that had a lot of people who were unvaccinated. Measles were able to take hold and spread quickly.”

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