AP Exclusive: Private school vaccine opt-outs rise

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Those who choose not to vaccinate their children see the legislation as meddlesome and unnecessary.

“It’s making an extra appointment and paying extra money to go in there and essentially get permission to do what I feel is right for my family,” said Dawn Kelly, who sends her unvaccinated 5-year-old son and partially vaccinated 9-year-old son to Monarch Christian School in the Los Angeles area.

Like many parents who refuse some or all immunization shots, Kelly worries her children’s immune system could be overwhelmed by getting too many vaccines at once.

Melani Gold Friedman, president of the parent association at Highland Hall Waldorf School, is concerned with what the legislation means for families who normally consult with acupuncturists, holistic healers or other alternative practitioners.

“The bill has an assumption that everyone’s seeing one particular kind of doctor, but the people who are opting out, chances are they’re not seeing that kind of doctor,” she said.

Vaccination opt-out rates nationwide have been creeping up since the mid-2000s, spurred in part by the belief the battery of vaccinations routinely given to infants could lead to autism. Several major studies have discredited that idea.

Parents are allowed to forego vaccines for philosophical reasons in California and 19 other states. Of those, only Washington requires parents to consult with a physician. And, in California, there’s no difference between private and public schools when it comes to what’s required for parents to opt out _ they simply sign a document. The state recommends that kindergarteners receive five vaccine progressions, including protections against Polio, Hepatitis B and Measles

Politicians and public health experts across the nation are focusing more attention on childhood immunizations, driven by a re-emergence of diseases like whooping cough. The U.S. is in the midst of what could be its worst year for that disease in more than five decades, with nearly 25,000 cases and 13 deaths.

After whooping cough reached epidemic levels in California in 2010, the state took action, embarking on a public information campaign and increasing the availability of vaccines. A law was passed requiring booster shots for older students.

Yet the opt-out rate continued climbing in private schools. It’s more than doubled since 2004, to 2,228 kindergartners in last year’s state survey. While the overall rate of full immunization among kindergarteners hovers around 91 percent, places where the opt-out rate is greater could pose a risk for outbreak.

In 2008, East Bay Waldorf School in El Sobrante closed temporarily after whooping cough sickened more than a dozen students, eight of them kindergartners. The San Francisco Bay Area school had a vaccination rate of less than 50 percent.

State health officials are tracking the divergence of opt-out rates in private and public schools, but are not planning any studies or outreach efforts targeting this pupil population. The state is conducting a general education campaign to boost vaccinate rates.

The AP analysis found 20 of the 25 California private schools with the highest opt-out rates are “Waldorf schools,” a loose association of institutions founded on the teachings of 19th-century philosopher Rudolf Steiner. He favored a holistic approach to education and medicine and thought childhood illnesses could be beneficial.

Officials at these schools would not comment about Pan’s bill but say they trust parents to make the best decisions for their children’s health.

“Parents who are brave enough to say, `No, that’s not the right thing,’ should be supported,” said Patrice Maynard, spokeswoman for the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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