November 1, 2004
A sign tacked on the lobby bulletin board at Chandler’s Bologna Elementary School states: "No Child Will be Admitted without Proper Immunization Records." The message to parents is emphatic but wrong.
State law allows parents to sign immunization waivers for their children and enroll them in public school with or without complete records.
But the option to forgo inoculations is not something East Valley schools like to emphasize.
Administrators say they don’t want a return to the days when children in the United States lived at risk of diseases such as smallpox, polio, measles, whooping cough and chickenpox.
So school nurses demand — or at least gently prod — parents to vaccinate their children before enrollment. A few East Valley schools, including Chandler’s San Marcos Elementary School, even host free clinics to ensure that their students are immunized.
Some parents, however, fear the vaccines more than the diseases. Others, for religious or philosophical reasons, refuse to inoculate their children.
FEARS ABOUT AUTISM
Some parents decide against inoculating their children because they believe a connection exists between the rise of autism and childhood inoculation.
The thought weighs on the mind of Apache Junction parent Jessie Geroux, whose 4-year-old son, Tyler, is autistic.
Geroux said Tyler was a precocious toddler when the family moved to the East Valley from Flagstaff in 2002. In the stress of relocating, Tyler was behind on his shots when he visited a Valley pediatrician who decided to "catch him up" and gave him eight shots in one day.
"Thinking back now, I’m horrified that he was given that many," Geroux said. "It was around Christmastime, and that’s when you show off your child, and all-ofa-sudden he couldn’t say a word. You can’t believe it and you wonder if he’s just becoming shy, but the language skills were totally disappearing."
Tyler’s experience is not uncommon, said Barbara Loe, cofounder and president of the Virginia-based National Vaccine Information Center and the mother of an autistic child.
Yet, for all the anecdotal evidence, government and privately funded research has failed to document any clear link between autism and inoculation. Mainstream medical experts say the timing is coincidental because shots are given about the same time that an autistic child begins to exhibit manifestations.
Loe said her organization is not "antishot," but more "informed consent" — meaning that parents need to be better educated medical consumers for their children.
But many parents no longer listen to the established medical community because "there is a disconnect between their real-life experience and what they are being told by the government," she said.
Loe said after spending years studying autism, she has come to the conclusion that certain children are genetically predisposed to autism and inoculations can trigger the condition. Research out of Columbia University in New York suggests she may be right.
The study, published in June, noted that mice with a certain genetic makeup began to exhibit autistic-like behaviors when they were injected with a mercury preservative called thimerosal.
Thimerosal was used in vaccines through the late 1990s to extend their shelf-life. The preservative is no longer an added ingredient, but vaccines produced before the ban still exist.
Janet Kirwan, family services director with the Southwest Autism Research Resource Center in Phoenix and the parent of an autistic boy, said parents should be savvy about inoculating their children.
She suggests spreading out the inoculations over a longer period of time and not administering shots to sick children.
Christine Mahon doesn’t care how long parents take to vaccinate their children, only that they do it before they start school.
Mahon, program administrator for Arizona Department of Health Services’ Community Health Nursing said parents who don’t immunize their children put the community at higher risk for disease outbreaks.
Mahon cited measles as an example of an "opportunistic" disease that almost became an issue about two years ago when a Maricopa County resident traveled out of the country and came back infected.
Geroux said she hasn’t ruled out vaccinations for Tyler or her youngest child for that reason. "I would be horrified if my child died from whooping cough or became infertile because of chickenpox," she said.
School officials said they respect parents’ personal decisions, and they hope they can protect children who aren’t vaccinated if an outbreak occurs.
"We call it herd immunization," said Mahon, "and we hope those who are vaccinated can protect those who aren’t."