Education

Local schools lead state in personal belief vaccine exemptions

The number of Sacramento-area children starting kindergarten without vaccines soared 30 percent in the last school year, and the parents at the Community Outreach Academy near North Highlands are part of the reason why.

This fast-growing charter school caters to families from the former Soviet Union, and many of the parents distrust vaccines. In 2011-2012, they filed about 75 personal belief exemptions to avoid getting shots for their kindergartners. In 2012-13 that number rose to 118 – more than at any other school in the state. About 58 percent of kindergartners at the school have personal belief exemptions on file. And another 8 percent have personal medical exemptions.

“It’s a parent’s decision,” said Nadya Putyrski, whose children attend the school. Putyrski said she stopped vaccinating them two years ago, after scrolling the Internet and viewing videos about children who allegedly had bad reactions to their shots.

Health experts say the Sacramento region’s large immigrant population is one factor in the growing number of parents declining to get shots for their children. The number of children in Yolo, Sacramento, Placer and El Dorado counties starting kindergarten without vaccines jumped 30 percent, or by 350 children, in the last school year, according to new data from the California Department of Public Health.

None of the 15 largest counties in the state had a larger percentage of personal belief exemptions among kindergartners than Sacramento County during the 2012-13 school year.

Almost one in 20 kindergartners in the Sacramento region had personal belief exemptions last year, compared to about one in 35 kindergartners statewide. In Placer and El Dorado counties the rate of exemptions is one in 12, meaning children in those schools are about three times as likely to lack vaccinations due to personal beliefs.

State law requires that children receive certain immunizations in order to attend public and private elementary and secondary schools. Parents can exempt their children from the requirement by obtaining a note from a doctor or filing a statement saying immunization is contrary to their personal beliefs.

Personal belief exemptions are largely filed by parents afraid that vaccines could harm their children – a position disputed by most medical authorities.

Sacramento County Public Health Officer Olivia Kasirye said local opposition to vaccinations is coming from distinct pockets of the community. “Obviously, when you see some of the (vaccination) rates, it’s worrisome because it’s obviously way too low and it’s in groups that spend a lot of time together,” Kasirye said. “Before you know it the immunization rate is going lower and lower. All it takes is one case to start an outbreak.”

The schools with the highest number of unvaccinated kindergarteners are certain private schools, charter schools and schools with a large number of new immigrants. Some parents sign the waivers out of convenience, because school is about to start and they don’t have a vaccination appointment. Others decide not to get the immunizations based on unreliable information on the Internet, Kasirye said.

‘Distrust of government’

Oleg Novorok, whose children also attend Community Outreach Academy, said his middle son became ill after he was vaccinated in a clinic, and the family stopped vaccinating for a time. He can’t recall getting so many shots when he was a boy in the Ukraine and he isn’t sure it is healthy for his children. “I agree with doctors, but not with all they say,” Novorok said, adding that immunizations are one way doctors make money.

Officials from Gateway Community Charters, which operates the school, have discussed the importance of immunization with parents, said Jason Sample, director of community engagement and development for the charter system. They have made appearances on a Slavic radio program and referred families to community organizations that offer information on immunizations.

Sample isn’t sure why parents at this school have been reluctant to vaccinate. “We have a lot of newcomers ... their first time in this country,” he said. “I think we do have some of that distrust of government.”

Waldorf schools make up six of the 15 local schools with the highest percentage of children that have personal belief exemptions. Parents at Alice Birney Waldorf-Inspired K-8 School in Sacramento, where 33 percent have filed personal belief waivers, say they aren’t concerned about the low inoculation rates.

Waldorf schools usually take no official position on vaccination, saying it is a matter of personal choice. But parents at Alice Birney School, where plastic and television are banned, said that people who send their children to Waldorf schools are more willing to look for alternatives to mainstream conventions.

In Yolo County the Davis Waldorf School has the highest number of parents – 44 percent – opting for personal belief exemptions for their kindergartners.

Yolo County saw 3.6 percent of families file personal belief exemptions for their kindergartners. Although that only adds up to 88 children starting school without the required vaccinations, it is still above the statewide average of 2.79 percent.

“I’m actually concerned about the free rider aspect,” said Don Saylor, Yolo County supervisor. “As long as a vast majority of the population chooses to vaccinate, the potential to fend off infection from disease will continue to be strong. When you get to the point that people choose, as a group, not to vaccinate their children it could affect the whole community.”

Safety worries

Parents don’t make the decision to forgo vaccination lightly, said Barbara Loe Fisher, cofounder of the National Vaccine Information Center, a nonprofit that advocates for parents’ right not to vaccinate. “They spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is right for their child,” she said. “When something happens to their child they are left with the duty and financial responsibility for the rest of their lives.”

She said parents have become wary of the ever-increasing number of vaccinations that children are given and worry about their side effects. She said more parents have access to scientific studies and medical research on the Internet that show immunizations can be harmful.

Medical officials contend that there is a lot of misinformation online about vaccines. All four counties in the Sacramento region have programs offering outreach programs to dispense information about immunizations. Sacramento County going a step further by recruiting “cultural brokers” to help reach out to pockets of the community where vaccination exemptions are high. The cultural brokers are usually members of the ethnic group trying to be reached. They know the group’s language and customs, and they are trusted, Kasirye said. She said the county has made slow, steady progress by working through cultural brokers.

Nhat Nguyen waited for his school shots Thursday at Sacramento City Unified’s Enrollment Center. The second-grader had just moved to California from Vietnam and was getting his first immunization. His family was happy to be getting the inoculations, which the school district provides for free. “We look at it as a positive thing,” said his uncle, John Tran. “They say it prevents disease and keeps kids from getting sick.”

In 2014, it will be more difficult for families to opt out of vaccinations. A new law will require parents filing a personal belief exemption to also submit a document signed by a doctor or other approved medical practitioner acknowledging they been told about the benefits and drawbacks of vaccines. Kasirye hopes that the opportunity for parents to speak to health care providers about immunizations will bring down the number of personal belief exemptions filed.



RESISTING VACCINES

These 10 schools represent about 25 percent of the personal belief exemptions to vaccinations among kindergarteners in four-county region, though they only educate about about 4 percent of the region’s students.

School name City Public/private Kindergartners Personal belief exemptions Percent
Community Outreach Academy McClellan Public 205 118 58%
Visions in Educations Carmichael Public 290 74 26%
Community Collaborative Charter McClellan Public 95 38 40%
Alice Birney Waldorf Method School Sacramento Public 109 36 33
Partnership for Student Centered Learning Lincoln Public 93 27 29%
Horizon Charter School Lincoln Public 47 25 44%
Cedar Springs Waldorf Placerville Private 34 21 62%
California Montessori Project-San Juan Campuses Carmichael Public 190 20 11%
Golden Valley Charter School of Sacramento Orangevale Public 59 19 32%
Davis Waldorf School Davis Private 43 19 44%




BIG RISE

The number of kindergartners with personal belief exemptions to vaccinations has jumped sharply in the last five years.

County 2008 2011 2013
El Dorado 120 195 293
Placer 189 230 454
Sacramento 375 623 850
Yolo 47 72 88

Source: California Department of Public Health

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