George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Growing Number of Concerned Families Exempt Children from Required Shots

As more parents refuse vaccines for their kids, health officials worry.
By Andrea Orr
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Credit: Corbis

Late last year, Jessie Griffiths took a notarized document into the rural New Hampshire school her three-year-old son Cole attends, stating that, because of religious objections, he was not up-to-date on his vaccines. Later she admitted, "This is not actually the truth."

Cole had suffered a series of seizures days after receiving his measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines that alarmed Griffiths enough for her to stop all future vaccinations. She could have sought a medical note from her son's doctor, but she decided it would be easier just to take the religious exemption that every state except Mississippi and West Virginia allows -- often with no questions asked.

Across the country, a small but growing number of parents are doing the same thing. A 2006 survey from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the number of parents exempting their children from some or all of their state's required vaccines, for any stated reason, grew by 6 percent per year between 1991 and 2004. All anecdotal evidence suggests their ranks have continued to grow since then.

Certain religious groups, such as the Amish, often choose not to vaccinate, and other people, like Griffiths's son, suffer serious side effects. But health officials believe that many of the parents opting out today are doing so out of fear that the vaccines may contribute to other conditions such as autism, a link long suspected but repeatedly refuted in scientific research.

It's easy to overlook these thousands of parents who opt out of vaccinations for hepatitis A and B, polio, chicken pox, whooping cough, and other illnesses among the millions who vaccinate right on schedule. Indeed, overall immunization coverage has risen steadily across the United States for many years.

But Lance Rodewald, who directs the Immunization Services Division at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says he suspects there are already areas within the country where large numbers of parents taking exemptions have caused compliance to fall below 90 percent, a level generally considered a good measure of "herd immunity." Abstention is especially high in the Western states.

Sandy Cano, school nurse at John Muir Elementary School, in Santa Monica, California, estimates that, because of a high proportion of what she calls "free-to-be-me parents" in the school district, 5 percent or more of the children at her school have not received all their mandated vaccinations (all of them claiming religious exemption). "We try to reassure parents, but parents do their own research," Cano says. "School nurses are always worried."

Worried for good reason, says Rodewald. If parents who opt out of vaccines assume they are putting no one but their own child at risk, the reality is more complex. All vaccines have some small failure rate, meaning certain children who have been immunized against something like measles are still at risk -- a risk that only rises if they are going to school with other potential carriers.

"If a vaccine is 95 percent effective, and you have a lunchroom full of 300 kids, that means fifteen of them are susceptible, even if they have all been vaccinated," says Rodewald. An increasingly mobile society also means more people are traveling to and from developing nations, and the risk rises even more. A 2005 measles outbreak in Indiana began when one young girl who had not been immunized caught the measles during a trip to an orphanage in Romania. About thirty people in the community eventually came down with measles.

"I'm concerned when even one kid isn't vaccinated," says Cindy Lovell, school nurse at Midvale Elementary School, in Madison, Wisconsin. Having read much of the scientific research, Lovell remains convinced the benefits vaccines provide to the public health outweigh any risks.

But more and more parents who are skeptical of that research are turning to groups such as the National Vaccine Information Center, in Vienna, Virginia, which continues to explore possible hazards of vaccines and educates people to make their own decisions. The group's cofounder, Barbara Loe Fisher, argues that our concerns must go beyond the good of the "herd."

"I believe you cannot separate individual health from public health," she says. "We are at a point where one in five children is learning disabled. We cannot say our public health is being served."

Andrea Orr is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

Comments (17) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Lori's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you, David. What surprises me most about many of these posts is how blindly most people buy everything (and anything) the government, CDC, and their doctors tell them. There is NO verifiable scientific evidence disprooving the link between vaccines and autism or any of the other skyrocketing disabilities (asthma, severe allergies, ADHD, ADD, learning disabilities, PDD, etc.) in children. People need to open their eyes and consider that the government might not be acting in anyone's best interest except that of stuffing their own pockets with pharma dollars. Is there any proof that vaccines are safe or effective? I think not!! Most Americans have been brainwashed into believing whatever their government and doctors tell them. Read the label of the next vaccine before you give it to your child. Think about why we are still vaccinating for diseases that have disappeared long ago (many that were never life-threatening to begin with). Along with mercury, formaldahyde, and alluminum, there are all kinds of ingredients that you wouldn't want in your own body -- never mind an infant's. And don't believe that all the mercury has been removed from vaccines -- because it hasn't.

I beg parents to do their own research. Don't just believe what the authorities would like you to believe. These are your children and your job is to protect them! Non-vaccinated children are so much healthier than vaccinated children that even when they catch diseases, they are able to fight them off with their strong immune systems and then they have lifelong true immunity to that disease. This is a much better idea, especially concerning Chicken Pox, which is not life-threatening in children, but can be severe in adults (who now need boosters). If the vaccine worked, then why would we need boosters? Think about that.

Do yourselves a favor and read the works of Dr. Sherry Tenpenny or David Kirby (Evidence of Harm), then you will have something to say.

parent and educator's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One aspect of this numerous articles have failed to mention is that some parents object to only one vaccine, such as MMR or chicken pox, but you aren't able to opt out of just one. If you have objections or concerns to one, you must seek an overall exemption. On paper it may look as if the child is not immunized at all, but the child may have all the shots except one. Vaccine reactions are grossly under reported and it is extremely difficult to receive a medical exemption. My children do not have all of their shots for a variety of reasons: previous reactions and allergies to ingredients top the list. We moved from one state to another and had to go about proving to the new doctors the validity of our previous medical exemptions. It was easier just to take the religious "out." They get the shots they can (HiB, polio and DT) on a delayed schedule and we skip the rest.

Ole Perfesser's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

KayDee and Clifton NJ administrator,

I think you might have misunderstood some of the current (but not necessarily final) research. Some research has indicated that certain vaccinations [not lack of vaccination] MAY cause various neurological problems such ADD, ADHD, plus asthma and other maladies (due to mercury, eggs, and other filler in the vaccinations). Of course, these and other research are always tentative (in the next ten years there will probably be five studies proving it and five studies disproving it) - note the "tagline" that "more studies [and more research grants] are still needed." Many accuse Big Pharma and other industries of being driven more by money than "our good." The same may be said of other researchers who need/keep a constant funding stream for income.

I found it interesting that the school nurse calls California parents who make their own informed decisions that contradict her and the CDC "free-to-be-me parents."

Frank Turzyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yet to date have not seen nor been giving any data on double blind studies on any vaccines to their safety and effectiveness against disease. Still all I hear are opinions of few officials stating they work, but no facts.Just because a few chosen who can not survive in private sectors get Government jobs believe they have right to tell others what to do. That is sir called dictatorship and Nuremberg trails hung officials for following orders a fact not opinion.
I am American and I have right to chose , not cdc , the state ,or any type of force .

Kevin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Before I started to write a reply to contest the inaccurate statement made in the last sentence in the fourth paragraph, I scrolled down and read all these comments. I am so relieved to read that there are many here who are wiser to what is going on. Apparently the author is not aware of the three landmark cases currently being decided upon in the US Court of Federal Claims (where those injured from vaccines get compensated with tax dollars instead of lawsuits against big pharma due to their sweetheart deal with Congress) in which it is clear that the government agencies involved and their lawyers are trying their hardest to never let see the light of day any existing evidence that there is a link between vaccines and autism. Read for yourself:

The author sounds just like the thousands of pediatricians and millions of parents out there who blindly believe that if the CDC and FDA say it's okay, then it must be. All this article does is advance the blindness. Did anyone else snicker at the irony of the term "herd immunity"? Herd immunity via herd mentality?

Durkowitz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What rights do teachers have when it comes to unimmunized students? Can they refuse to teach them or not?

Michael's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been reading various forums today regarding vaccines, some pro some anti. What I find is that those who are pro-vaccine often quote what their doctors have told them, on average they have done no real research of their own.

What those people should know is that there are stories all over the U.S of doctors who refuse to vaccinate their own children because they have done the research, there are also stories sadly of doctors who had not done the research and their children suffered horribly for it.

Not all children are affected adversely by vaccines. Some are fine. Some are not. We must weigh our options and educate ourselves. Do the research people. My understanding is measles was already declining the YEAR BEFORE the vaccine became available. Interesting. Yet these tidbits are little known.

SIDS is huge these days. WHY? I hear Austraila had a large reduction in SIDS when they made vaccines non-mandatory. (I am presently researching this.) Whenever you read about vaccines being safe safe safe - Look up who funded the research or who is monetarily invested in the outcome and then look for the trail.

It doesnt matter if you like or dislike what you read. Make sure you look up the sources for what is being stated.

Parents who choose NOT to vaccinate are often quietly afraid of "what if". We have it shoved down our throats that if we do not vaccinate it will surely lead to the death of our children or those of others. No one seems to bring up the fact that VACCINATED children sometimes catch the illnesses for which they were vaccinated against so what good did the vaccine do in these cases?

I am looking at the safe vaccination schedule right now and will continue to do research on both sides of the issue. My child is dear to me and I do not want any suffering to come by the hands of those we should be able to trust to be completely educated on both sides of such an important issue. Vaccines have obviously done good things but they have become excessive it seems.

If you are anti-vaccine be aware that there are two sides to the issue, dont make decisions from fear, make them from informed stand points! If you are pro-vaccine, the same applies to you! I am pro-education, that is all. I am for vaccines but something seems different about them to me from when I was a kid. Any comments on this thought would be great. There are tons of sites out there showing the quiet side of vaccines, all sides should be researched.

DK's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If the government is so confident in the safety of vaccines, perhaps they would like to explain why they shield medical companies from all liability, preventing parents with legitimate claims from advocating for their children? Clearly they understand the risks otherwise there would be no need for such liability protections.

Perhaps they would also like to explain how injecting known neurotoxins into a growing babies body is expected not to have a negative effect?
Very illogical reasoning from any scientific perspective.

Lastly one can not trust doctors any more than the government. US doctors are trained not to think for themselves via rigid medical schools, and furthermore much of their income is tied to vaccine rates, so they have a clear conflict of interest.

dcScience9's picture
9th grade physical science

Too many people exercise "herd" mentality when it comes to government policies. Time to realize that big gov't isn't interested in the masses (except when it comes to garnering votes) but caters to the top of the pyramid. Our former (failure of a) president said it nicely when he addressed a group of his cronies calling them the "have's" and the "have more's" to their great amusement.
Personally I think it is frightening to see how easily the general population is persuaded to buy into gov't policies. Their fear tactics have been pretty successful so far.
Check out the Health Freedom Alliance and affiliated organizations for a rude awakening about the intention behind mass vaccination. Dr. Rina Leibow can shed plenty of light on the situation.

Tanaylia's picture
Parent of toddler with 1 on the way

I have to thank San Francisco Teacher for unintentionally making my point for me. Many childhood vaccines are not lifelong and yet we as a society treat them as such. My objection in particular is the chicken pox vaccine. When we went to my son's 15month appointment with our new pediatrician he was trying to talk us into giving that vaccine. I asked him how long it had been in use, and he told me 25-30 years. However when I did the research myself I found that it first became available until 1988 in Japan and Korea and didn't come to the US until 1995. That means that the oldest person in the US to have been vaccinated at the appropriate age (1 year) is only 17 years old. The oldest person in the world would be 24. How does this prove lifelong immunity? Chicken Pox is only rarely fatal in childhood, but can be very serious and frequently fatal in adulthood. So the government is basically forcing parents to give their children a vaccine that will keep them from getting an annoying childhood illness, but may not prevent a potentially fatal adult illness. And the only way to opt out of this foolishness is to claim religious objection to all vaccines, and be labled as a "problem parent". My son is already flagged in our local health system as "Vaccines not up to date due to parent refusal." That makes it sound like I refuse to give him any vaccines because I don't care, rather than a conscientious objector to something that could harm or kill my child! We were even turned down by multiple pediatricians when our family doctor moved simply because we didn't want to give our child all the vaccines.

Also here's an important bit of information for all parents to hopefully start their own research. My husband's sister is a nurse and she got her first Flu Shot in her mid twenties. Shortly after she was diagnosed with early onset MS which was triggered by the Flu Shot. This is not a common occurance, but can happen and is well documented. My husband and children will never get Flu Shots as a precaution! I strongly recommend anyone that has a family history of MS to do some research into this and avoid getting a Flu Shot or giving one to their children.

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