Objectors To Immunization Pose Measles Risk To Themselves and Others

Friday, July 30th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Even though summer is just warming up, the new school year will be here before you know it. And it is not too early to think about making sure your child's immunization records are up-t-date. "No shots. no school" is the law in every state, unless parents claim an exemption for religious reasons.

From measles to meningitis, from polio to pertusis, vaccines make an enormous difference. Federal Health officials say except for safe drinking water, no other medical and public health intervention saves as many lives and keeps people healthy. 98 per cent of school-aged children are immunized against the traditional vaccine preventable diseases. However, for religious or philosophical reasons, a relatively small number of youngsters do not receive vaccinations because their parents have claimed exceptions. "Nationally, it's less than one per cent. But the issue becomes more significant because often people that choose not to immunize may be grouped in certain geographical regions, maybe within certain states, or you may even find, for example a certain school may have a lot of people that choose not to immunize,' said Dr. Daniel Salmon, National Immunization Program.

In a study coordinated by the National Immunization Program at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, public health specialist Dr. Salmon and colleagues looked at measles cases nationwide for several years from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s. As reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they found on average, the children exempted on religious or philosophical grounds were 35 times more likely to contract measles than vaccinated youngsters. In some years and in some age groups, the risk was 170 times greater. The exempt children also pose a threat to other children. "What we found was that there was a relationship between the number of children who were not immunized and in the disease among the non-exempt public. So, the protection which we all enjoy because the majority of us choose to vaccinate our children can be affected by others that choose not to vaccinate," says Dr. Salmon.

For some children, the vaccine is not fully effective. Others are vulnerable because they can't take shots for medical reasons. Since the greater the number of people immunized, the greater the chance the disease will be eradicated or spread only with great difficulty, this research underscores the dilemma of reconciling what's best for an individual with what's best for the community as a whole.

The researchers say a measles outbreak in Utah in 1996 is a good example of what can happen. The outbreak began in an area with a large number of exempt children. It spread from the children who weren't immunized due to exemption to other youngsters. Eventually, more than half of those affected was in the non-exempt group. 48 states currently permit religious exemptions and 15 states allow philosophical or personal exemptions. Requirements vary dramatically.