As a public health crisis looms, anti-government beliefs fuel counterproductive vaccination policies

April 17, 2019 4:31 pm

India Ampah holds her son, Keon Lockhart, 12 months old, as pediatrician Amanda Porro administers a measles vaccination during a visit to the Miami Children’s Hospital on June 2, 2014. Photo by Joe Raedle | Getty Images

The dramatic uptick in unvaccinated students in Arizona is what the beginning of a public health crisis looks like. Unfortunately, it’s entirely unclear what policymakers will do about it.

But if the discussions that dominated the early weeks of the legislative session are any indication, the response won’t be adequate or based in reality.

A lot has been written in the past week about the rising threat of unvaccinated children, following the Arizona Department of Health Services’s release of vaccination rates at schools for the current school year.

What ADHS, public health advocates and many others realize is that the situation is dire: Only 4 out of 10 kindergartens in this state are above the threshold to be considered immune to a measles outbreak because parents are using Arizona’s “personal belief exemption” to avoid vaccinating their children. Some claim the exemption for only some of the required vaccinations, while some claim it for all vaccinations.

In 2000, the U.S. declared that measles had been eliminated. But now we are seeing in real time the consequences of large numbers of parents placing their faith in their own beliefs (or Google skills) above best medical practices. There have been some 465 measles cases in 19 states already this year, and that figure is rapidly growing.

As dire as the situation is, the figures compiled annually by ADHS show that the vaccination problem has been growing quickly in the past few years. In the 2015-16 school year, 431 schools fell below the herd immunity threshold for measles in kindergarten. On average, 94.1 percent of kindergartners (at schools with more than 20 kindergartners) were immune.

This year, there are 501 schools below herd immunity for measles, a 16-percent increase in just 4 years. The average immunity rate fell to 92.7 percent of kindergartners.

The same is true for the polio vaccine: kindergartens at 394 schools in 2015 were below herd immunity, while 457 schools now have fewer than 95 percent of five- and six-year-olds immunized.

The number of kindergartners enrolled in an Arizona school whose parents claimed a personal belief exemption for at least one required vaccine has climbed from 4.6 percent in 2015 to 6 percent in 2016.

And parents who chose to value their beliefs over medical science to allow their children to avoid all six of the required vaccines (seven in Maricopa County) has spiked since 2015, nearly doubling from 2.2 percent to 4 percent.

Since 2015, only 138 schools saw a decrease in the number of students claiming a personal exemption, while 149 saw increases.

In some cases, those increases have been massive. Zuni Hills Elementary School in the Peoria Unified School District has seen the number of kindergartners exempted from at least one vaccine skyrocket from 1 percent in 2015 to 18 percent (of 82 kindergartners) in 2018 – a 1,285-percent increase.

At Coronado Elementary School in St. Johns, only 2 students in 2015 had an exemption. Now, there are 25, nearly half of the school’s 55 kindergartners. That’s a 1,264-percent jump.

And at Imagine Elementary at Desert West, a charter school in the Maryvale neighborhood, personal exemptions have climbed 1,150 percent, going from less than 1 percent of 121 kindergartners in 2015 to 18 percent of this year’s 160-student kindergarten class.

Common sense says that the correct response to a growing public health crisis brought on by a state law that allows parents to put children – theirs and yours and mine – at risk of contracting and spreading serious and sometimes deadly diseases because they believe false information or conspiracy theories is to tighten up to law severely limit, if not halt altogether, those exemptions.

Naturally, our legislature chose to debate bills to expand the exemption and make it likelier that more parents would choose not to vaccinate their kids.

While some of those debates centered on the junk science that links vaccinations to things like autism or that infants can’t handle receiving so many vaccines, much of it seems to be an extension of the anti-government philosophy that guides much of today’s conservative movement.

That philosophy has manifested itself in the anti-vaccination movement as a vehement defense of parental rights and a rejection of the state’s powers over children. It’s not at all dissimilar from the mindset that has driven more parents to homeschool their children and that underpins the Republican Party’s embrace of charter schools and programs designed to divert public school students to private schools.

It’s no wonder, then, that the rates of unvaccinated kids are so much higher at charter and private schools – 9.7 percent and 9 percent, respectively – than they are at traditional public schools, where 5 percent claim an exemption.

And in that light, it’s not at all surprising to see that a great many of the schools with the most personal exemptions are in GOP-dominated Republican legislative districts in the East Valley and the Northwest Valley, as well as in places where anti-government sentiment runs deep, like Mohave and Yavapai counties.

If a primary role of the government is to keep its citizens safe, as I’ve heard countless self-proclaimed small-government conservatives declare over the years, then devising a policy to ensure Arizona schools don’t become hotbeds of measles and other preventable diseases ought to be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it seems that too many of our legislators have been inoculated against common sense.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.