Nevada County has the lowest childhood immunization rates among California’s 58 counties, but the system that determines compliance with school vaccine mandates is somewhat misleading, said parents and nurses.
“If I want to say that I don’t want to give my kids four shots at once, if you break from that schedule, then you have to sign the back of that (opt-out) card,” said Melissa Sampley, a Penn Valley mother. “That goes into the database as exempt from vaccination.”
When students enter kindergarten, their parents must demonstrate they have had the required shots, including vaccines for polio, pertussis, measles, mumps, hepatitis B and chickenpox.
If a student does not have all these required shots, parents have two options: file a personal belief exemption form or fall into non-compliance.
Consequences for children whose parents elect to forgo vaccinations vary according to the community and school, according to county health officials, but children who are not up to date can be restricted from going to school if an outbreak of infectious disease occurs.
“We don’t want to kick them out of school, but at the same time, they aren’t supposed to be in school,” said Gina Shield, a Nevada County school nurse.
“We try to see what is going on so we can get their kids in school, but eventually you have to put your foot down,” Shield said.
Students are also required to have immunizations heading into grade seven. In 2011, grades seven through 12 were required to verify their shots.
Statewide results are not compiled by the department of education for the counties until next year, leaving local county nurses to verify medical compliance records this fall.
For the 2011-12 school year, 760 kindergarten-aged children enrolled in Nevada County schools, of whom 544 (72 percent) were fully up to date on all immunizations, according to results tabulated and published by the California Department of Public Health.
However, those opt-out numbers don’t reflect the wide array of reasons for non-compliance, and, as noted, include parents who have chosen to space out their children’s immunizations.
Sampley’s two boys have all their shots except their chickenpox and hepatitis shots because she noticed that every time she gave her children a round of immunizations, they got sick, she said.
But her kids are classified the same as a child who has had no shots.
“Even though my blue card is signed, it doesn’t mean my kids aren’t vaccinated,” Sampley said. “I think that number could be way off.”
Other reasons for avoiding immunizations include the proliferation of high-deductible health insurance plans, which mean parents can’t afford to get a routine shot, said Sharyn Turner, coordinator of health for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools.
And even though the widely cited 1998 research relating autism to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was debunked as a fraudulent study and retracted in 2010, parents remain cautious.
“I think the rate of exploded autism correlates with the increased rates of vaccines,” said Nevada Union High School alum Justin Buettner, whose oldest child is autistic.
“We had good reason to think that the vaccines my oldest received had something to do with it, to trigger it at least,” Buettner said. “With our youngest, we are a lot more careful.”
The Buettners opted to space out immunizations on their second child.
“I’m not opposed to getting them,” Buettner said. “I’ll just do it on my timetable.”
Some shots are hard to come by. For instance, the chickenpox vaccine is so unstable that not every primary care facilities carries it, Turner said.
Sometimes students are fully immunized, and parents are simply unable to locate records, said county nurse Tracy Larson.
With the controversy of unintended side effects, cost and availability, sometimes it is just easier for parents to opt out of immunization compliance, Turner noted.
Whatever the reasons for not having immunizations, failure to do so puts others at risk, health officials said.
“It puts the elderly and infants at a huge risk,” Turner said.
Health officials aren’t the only ones exerting pressure on parents who haven’t immunized their kids. Other parents do, too.
“They get upset,” said Heidi LeVel, whose four children are in the Twin Ridge School District.
“I think it is important not to judge people on whether they do or whether they don’t,” LeVel said. “I just respect that everyone does what is best for their own family.”
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4236.