At some Arizona schools, more than 30 percent of children haven't been vaccinated against such dangerous infectious diseases as whooping cough and measles.
Parents, state Representative Juan Mendez says, have a right to know which ones.
The Arizona Department of Health lists vaccination rates for kindergarten and sixth-grade children online for most public, charter, and private schools. But, to find the data, you have to know where to look and then wade through a hefty spreadsheet.
Mendez (D-Tempe) argues that the information should be prominently displayed — as easy to access as updates about attendance boundaries and parent-teacher conferences. So he's proposed a bill that would require individual schools to list vaccination rates on their websites.
“I’m coming at this from a consumer-education point of view,” he says. “I want the average person to know what kind of environment they are putting their child into.”
Vaccines depend on a theory called “herd immunity.” Although the vast majority of health officials, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, maintain that vaccines are safe, they are not recommended for the very young or the very sick. These people can hide among the crowd — but only if enough of their neighbors have had their shots to make it unlikely an infected person will come into contact with an unprotected person.
The more contagious the disease, the more people must be immunized to keep it contained. To achieve herd immunity against measles, for example, between 92 and 94 percent of people in a given area must be vaccinated.
For this reason, Arizona law requires parents to immunize their children against a number of diseases, such as mumps and hepatitis B, before they can be enrolled in school. However, the state allows parents to opt out for medical and religious reasons, as well as if they are simply philosophically opposed to vaccines.
Over the last decade, as a result of a now thoroughly debunked study linking vaccines to autism, the number of Arizona kindergarten kids who have been granted “personal belief” exemptions has nearly tripled.
While, statewide, more than 94 percent of kindergartners received all their shots during the 2014-2015 school year, the coverage is uneven, leaving children who live in certain neighborhoods more vulnerable to infection.
At Desert Marigold School in Phoenix, for example, just 41 percent of kindergartners had been vaccinated against measles last year, according to the Arizona Department of Public Health — far fewer than is required to achieve herd immunity. Glendale's Canyon Elementary reported a measles vaccination rate of 72 percent. Phoenix's Khalsa Montessori Elementary School: 44 percent.
The bill’s opponents — unsurprisingly including Dr. Jack Wolfson, the Scottsdale cardiologist who rocketed to infamy last year when he went on national television during a measles outbreak to tell parents not to vaccinate their children — worry that making this data more readily available might lead parents to sleuth out which children are vaccinated and which are not.
“It’s almost like the old book, The Scarlet Letter,” Wolfson says. “These kids are going to be branded.”
A child’s right to privacy trumps parents' right to information, he argues.
“If your child has hepatitis B, no one says anything, no one knows,” he says. “But if your child is not vaccinated against hepatitis B, that should be public knowledge? Doesn’t that sound crazy?”
Wolfson calls the bill a “stepping stone” toward taking away parents' right to choose whether to vaccinate their children.
Already, only a handful of states allow parents to opt out of school vaccine requirements for philosophical — not religious or medical — reasons. After last year’s measles outbreak, which infected 189 people in 24 states, some are tightening loopholes. California in June passed a law forcing parents without a confirmed medical excuse to choose to either vaccinate or home-school.
But Wolfson insists: “There are risks listed on the package insert that comes with the vaccine so there must be a choice [about whether to vaccinate].”
Mendez and his supporters also argue that parents deserve a choice — the choice to send their child to a school where enough people are vaccinated to ensure herd immunity.
Dr. Chris Hickie, a pediatrician based in Tucson, points out that enrolling a child in a school with a low vaccination rate puts him or her at risk of contracting nasty diseases with side effects ranging from permanent paralysis to death.
“I would not send my child to a school where the vaccination rate was only 70 percent — and my children are fully vaccinated,” he says. “No vaccine is 100 percent effective. That’s why building up herd immunity is so important. If you have enough kids who are un-vaccinated, even the vaccinated kids are at risk.”
Information about immunization rates is particularly important for those with weak immune systems, such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or children who have had an organ transplant and must take drugs to suppress their body’s attempts to reject the foreign tissue, he says.
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“If a child who has had an organ transplant gets chicken pox, [he or she] could lose the transplanted organ,” he says.
He argues that schools can protect children’s privacy by withholding statistics for classes of 20 students or less — a practice the Arizona Department of Health already follows.
“This bill isn’t trying to make parents who don’t want to vaccinate, vaccinate their kids,” he says. “It’s trying to make it easier for parents of medically fragile children to know which schools are safest.”