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Child Vaccines: Some Parents Ill at Ease

Does the private right of parents to not vaccinate their kids trump the greater public good?

Herd Immunity continued...

Vaccination for children entering school is mandatory in all 50 states, but all states allow exemptions for medical reasons.

"Even in a well-vaccinated population, there are going to be some children who can't be vaccinated, either because they're too young -- for measles less than 12 months of age -- or they may have cancer chemotherapy or some other compromising medical condition that makes it not possible to vaccinate them," says Lance Rodewald, MD, director of the immunization services division at the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

Rodewald notes that there is also a low but still significant failure rate for some vaccinations: "For example, with one dose of measles vaccine there's a 4% to 5% failure rate, and with two doses of course it's much smaller, but still there will be some susceptibles in the population," he tells WebMD.

In addition to allowing medical exemptions for immunization, all states except Mississippi and West Virginia also allow exemptions from immunizations for deeply held religious beliefs, and 18 allow exemptions for "philosophical" objections, according to the NVIC.

In states where this is allowed, 2.54% of parents declined vaccines, according to a Johns Hopkins researcher.

Conscientious Objectors

One of the reasons for the rise in the number of parents requesting philosophical or religious exemptions from vaccination is that the standards for medical exemptions are so rigorous and that the exemption-granting authorities make it hard to claim them, Fisher says.

"It's extremely difficult to get a medical exemption -- it's given out in all 50 states, but it is given out extremely rarely," she says. "So what does a parent do in this country when they believe they have a child that has either been harmed or children who they believe are genetically risk? The only two exemptions they have are the religious or conscientious belief or philosophical belief exemptions."

In a 2005 survey of vaccine-refusing parents published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, more than two-thirds of respondents said their chief reason for rejecting vaccines was concern that they might be harmful, and nearly half said that vaccines "might overload the immune system." The vaccine most often refused was against chickenpox (varicella), which was refused by slightly more than half of all vaccine objectors.

Some vaccine objectors say that they're protecting their children from neurologic damage and that mainstream media are in cahoots with the medical establishment to downplay evidence linking vaccines and autism.

The Hannah Poling Case

Those who are convinced that there is a vaccine-autism connection point to the recently publicized case of Hannah Poling, who developed autism-like symptoms after receiving childhood vaccinations. The federal government recently agreed to award the Poling family compensation from a vaccine injury fund established to encourage vaccine research and development and protecting vaccine manufacturers from liability by offering an alternative to lawsuits.

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