Opting out of vaccines is a risky numbers game–just ask my son

Parents of school-age kids today probably never witnessed a whooping cough outbreak or the measles because they were lucky enough to have lived in a generation of vaccinated kids. But this luxury of good health could slip away all too quickly as more and more families opt out of routine vaccinations.

If you want to look at the hard facts, the good health of our kids today depends on a numbers game. 

Preventing kids (and adults) from getting diseases depends on a statistic: As long as about 90-95% of us vaccinate our kids, our kids are relatively safe according to an Associated Press report. Even the un-vaccinated kids are protected because the vaccinated kids keep the disease numbers down. In simple terms, our kids are healthy due to herd immunity.

Right now the number of vaccinated kids in the US hovers around 90%, but with each cluster of un-vaccinated kids we risk getting closer to an increasing number of dangerous outbreaks.

  • Today an outbreak of whooping cough, a preventable disease through vaccination, was documented in Long Island, New York.
  • Last year dangerous outbreaks of measles and meningitis occurred in several states.
  • In 8 states, vaccine exemption rates are climbing to dangerous levels– 1 in 20 public school kindergartners do not get all the vaccines required for attendance.

Although parents may think their kids are safe in the US, an outbreak of something we don't want to think about is only a plane ride away. China had been polio free for two decades and now a major outbreak of polio has re-emerged there due to travellers from other countries.

My son is up-to-date on his vaccines, but my son and thousands of other kids like him on chemo or other immune suppressive drugs risk getting seriously sick–even dying–every time they step out the front door.

It's not my son's fault he is at risk. And he is determined not to let those numbers catch up with him. You would think he was a surgeon prepping in the OR every time he fastidiously washes up before eating. 

In a nutshell, the risk of your kid getting a preventable disease depends on what the parents of the kids next door decide and the parents of kids at school decide. 

Just who is opting out of vaccines? The profile of the under-immunized kid lives in a white, educated, middle class family. These web-savvy parents do not believe the studies that prove again and again that vaccines are safe. Instead they are trying to outsmart the vaccine program. And they can because of that herd immunity I mentioned earlier.  As long as enough OTHER families in the herd get vaccinated, they are relatively safe. But when the un-vaccinated families cluster together troubling outbreaks occur. 

The Journal of Pediatrics reports that 1 in 10 parents say they refused or delayed shots because of concern over shot safety. According to federal data on vaccination exemption rates reported to the AP:

Alaska had the highest exemption rate in 2010-11, at nearly 9 percent. Colorado's rate was 7 percent, Minnesota 6.5 percent, Vermont and Washington 6 percent, and Oregon, Michigan and Illinois were close behind. 

According to a segment on the TODAY show, NBC Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman warns about the dangers of being under immunized: 

Think of it this way, your mother who might be fighting breast cancer, your sister with rheumatoid arthritis, your other child with asthma–an un-immunized child is a walking Typhoid Mary who could put any of those immune-compromised people in an early grave.

I realize my family has more at risk in this vaccination exemption game. Even as the risk rises due to higher levels of under-immunized kids, I won't turn my kid into a bubble boy. But I do worry. And I hope more parents make the smart choice and decide not to play the numbers game. 

 For more information and links go to my Momathon Blog post.


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