“The websites that portray vaccinations as bad do a very good job of hitting your emotional centers and really creating terror in your heart about what can happen,” said Jacobs, an associate professor of epidemiology at University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. “It’s a very powerful mechanism for the anti-vaccination movement.”
The rate of Arizona parents choosing not to vaccinate their children for personal or religious beliefs has more than doubled in the past decade, according to data from the state Department of Health Services.
Jacobs, who is starting a study on this issue with a colleague, said terrors spread via Internet or word-of-mouth may be part of the explanation for this increase.
Under Arizona law, parents can fill out an exemption form and give it to their child’s school if they don’t want him or her vaccinated due to personal or religious beliefs. Children who aren’t vaccinated aren’t allowed in school during disease outbreaks that could be prevented by vaccines.
Vaccines not only protect the person who gets the shot but also prevent diseases from extending within communities, said Karen Lewis, medical director of the Immunization Program Office within the Arizona Department of Health Services.
“If the healthy people for whatever reason decide to start not being fully immunized, then the diseases spread very easily,” Lewis said.
From school year 2001-2002 to school year 2010-2011, the proportion of children whose parents filled out an exemption due to religious or personal beliefs form rose from 1.2 percent to 3.4 percent in child care and from 1.2 percent to 3.2 percent in kindergarten, according to data collected from schools by the state health department and Maricopa and Pima counties.
Jacobs said vaccination exemptions aren’t evenly spread throughout the state’s counties but rather clustered in certain areas.
“It’s not an isolated phenomenon where we can say that a certain county is in real danger at this point,” she said. “But I can tell you that in every county in Arizona there seems to be places where there are clusters. And that’s true in the entire United States.”
State figures show that in Yavapai County vaccination-exemption rates for personal beliefs were 8.5 percent for kindergarten and 9.8 percent for sixth grade last year. In Coconino County, those rates were 5.1 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively.
Arizona is among 10 states that have the easiest procedures for getting a vaccination exemption based on personal beliefs, Jacobs said.
“The parents just need to sign a paper and turn it in to the school,” she said. “There is really no oversight by any physician.”
Lewis said the state health department doesn’t investigate exemption cases that are based on personal and religious beliefs. However, the exemption form encourages parents to get their children vaccinated.
“I am concerned when people do not understand how wonderful vaccines are and how terrible vaccine-preventable diseases can be,” Lewis said.
Despite the growing number of vaccinations exemptions in the state, an estimated 76.3 percent of Arizona children aged 19 to 35 months had received a series of recommended vaccines as of 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national average was 74.9 percent.
Parents requesting an exemption for their children seldom do it for all vaccines, said Debbie McCune Davis, program director of The Arizona Partnership for Immunization, a statewide nonprofit. Sometimes they just delay the vaccine, she said.
McCune Davis said vaccination not only protects children but the community as a whole.
“When you have a well-immunized population, the disease does not spread,” she said. “You don’t have epidemics or pandemics, you have outbreaks, and outbreaks don’t have the same impact on population.”
Bastien Inzaurralde is a reporter for Cronkite News Service