County health officials have released student immunization rates from local schools to raise awareness and inform parents about their child’s potential for exposure to infectious diseases.
Eight schools countywide reported that 100 percent of their students meet immunization requirements this year, Orange County Health Department records show. Nearly all local schools reported immunization rates of 95 percent or higher, health officials said.
State law requires all children to be vaccinated before starting a child-care program or a public, private or charter school. Homeschooled children also must be vaccinated, although the law is not usually enforced until the child goes to school.
Parents can ask for an exemption based on genuine religious beliefs or a physician’s medical advice. North Carolina does not recognize a philosophical objection to vaccinations; parents with those concerns typically claim a religious objection, officials said.
Nearly all states – except California, Mississippi and West Virginia – offer religious exemptions, while only 19 offer philosophical exemptions.
Children who do not have an exemption or the required vaccinations can be suspended after 30 days and return to school after their parents get an exemption or proof they were vaccinated.
Emerson Waldorf School outside Chapel Hill reported Orange County’s lowest immunization rate – 62.2 percent of the K-12 students are immunized. The school, which has had previous outbreaks of pertussis and measles, reported 84 out of 222 students had religious exemptions.
The school’s policy is to meet all state requirements, Emerson Waldorf administrator Christina Wise said. A number of families have made a different choice, she said, and the school chooses to respect their decisions.
“We consider it a private matter for the family to make decisions, and then we observe all North Carolina laws regarding it,” Wise said.
Emerson Waldorf’s immunization rate lowered the overall rate for six local private schools to 93.2 percent, health officials reported. Those schools reported 96 religious and two medical exemptions.
Two charter schools – Orange Charter and Expedition School – had a 95.8 percent vaccination rate. Those schools reported 22 religious exemptions and none for medical reasons.
The Orange County Schools district led the county with the most vaccinated students at 99.2 percent, reports show, followed by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools with 98.78 percent. The county schools reported five medical and 57 religious exemptions, compared with 15 medical and 127 religious exemptions in the city schools.
The state Senate considered a bill this year that would have ended religious exemptions; it’s still in the Committee on Health Care.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools also attempted to eliminate the religious exemption a few years ago, said Judy Butler, the Health Department’s public health nursing supervisor.
“They found out legally that they probably could not do that,” she said. “The concern about having the legislature do away with religious exemptions ... was that it might backfire, and they may actually pass a law that allows personal exemptions, which a lot of states have done.”
Orange County has the second-highest number of religious exemptions in the state, Butler said, after Buncombe County. Roughly 4 percent of Buncombe’s school-age children are not immunized, state reports show.
Unvaccinated students can be asked to stay home for up to 21 days if an infectious disease strikes a school with low immunization rates, Butler said. The incubation period varies from one disease to another.
“If we had a pertussis case in a school that is 99 percent vaccinated,” Butler said, “we may not need to exclude the unimmunized students, because of the herd immunity in the population.”
“Herd immunity” means the school has enough vaccinated students that it also provides some protection to unvaccinated students.
The state reported 780 cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, in 2014 – the highest number reported since 1991. Twelve cases were reported in Orange County, state records show; Durham County had 20 cases, and Wake County had 53.
Orange County reported 13 pertussis cases in 2012, and one confirmed case of the measles in a local private school in 2013. A 14-year-old student at East Chapel Hill High School died from meningococcal disease in 2014.
Public health experts worry the fear that vaccinations may be linked to autism and other disorders, plus the number of unvaccinated homeschool students, may be causing a resurgence in some diseases that have been eradicated for years in the United States.
Since 1988, more than 16,000 claims of adverse vaccination effects have been filed with the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. More than $3 billion was paid in 4,277 of those claims, government records show.
Orange County’s health department works with medical providers to address those fears, Butler said, and encourages parents to consider science-based research that says the vaccines are safe.
North Carolina law requires all children to receive a series of vaccinations, including for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps and chicken pox, before starting a child-care program or public, private or charter school. Students also must have additional immunizations before they start the seventh grade.
While the state’s goal is to provide required vaccines free of charge to all children, budget cuts have limited that program, and parents whose children have health insurance coverage are usually asked to pay.
The Orange County Health Department provides immunizations by appointment in Hillsborough and Chapel Hill. Call 919-245-2400.
More information and a printable schedule of childhood vaccinations can be found on the Health Department’s website: bit.ly/20ewxl0. The Health Department also provides a link with information for parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated at bit.ly/1kXd2NF.
The following local schools reported 100 percent of their students are vaccinated:
▪ Orange County Schools: Efland Cheeks, Hillsborough Elementary, Pathways Elementary, Partnership Academy
▪ Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools: Phoenix Academy
▪ Private schools: Hillsborough Christian Academy, Montessori Day School, Pinewoods Montessori School