Un-waiver-ing support

Vaccination waivers low in Osceola, Mecosta counties compared to surrounding area

OSCEOLA COUNTY — Whether to vaccinate children has once again become a hot topic in the U.S., as cases of measles have popped up in at least 17 states, including Michigan.

Members of each side of the argument are passionate about their stance. In the meantime, local parents who would rather not immunize their children have that option.

Vaccine waivers are now only available at district health departments, due to a change in the law since Jan. 1. Parents or guardians must set up an appointment at the department and sit through an educational session on vaccines before deciding against vaccinating. If the waiver is still desired, the health department will stamp the form and it is the parent's responsibility to turn it in to the school.

Becky Himes, a registered nurse and personal health service supervisor of the Central Michigan District Health Department, said there is not yet enough evidence to say whether the new law is changing the minds of parents seeking waivers, but hopes it is making a difference.

"Coming from my perspective, the positive side of this is parents and guardians receive research-based information on vaccines," Himes said. "There's a lot on the Internet, but not all of the information is research-based."

Many people are aware of the debate whether vaccines cause autism. Years ago, former doctor Andrew Wakefield published papers saying vaccines caused autism, and though it was discovered he lied, the damage has already been done and individuals still believe the claim, Himes added. Wakefield was stripped of his license.

Robin Walicki, immunization program leader for District Health Department No. 10 in Mecosta County, also believes there are many positive aspects about the law.

"The law will give some education to those parents who are leaning toward not vaccinating their child and it gives us the opportunity to answer any questions they might have," Walicki added. "We have lots of resources to dispel myths and the state is encouraging us to listen to the concerns of the parents and meet them half way."

Prior to the change in the law, parents simply had to find the form online, print it out, sign the document and turn it in to the school.

"I think the waiver used to be too convenient for parents and I think they just didn't want the hassle of making an appointment," Himes said. "I hope that with the new law and people coming into the department it will stop that trend. I hope more kids will become immunized."

Schools require students to have a total of 16 immunizations, including booster shots, in the period between 7 and 18 years old. Vaccines include those for diseases such as polio, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, measles and mumps.

The number of waivers are reported by public school districts and child care centers, and though private schools, or non-state funded schools, do not have to report waivers, some choose to do so.

Schools are required to submit waiver reports every November and February, though data does not show waivers by school building or if the waiver is for one vaccination or multiple. Collecting such data is not only for the benefit of seeing trends and keeping tabs on the numbers in community schools. It also is a way to keep children who are not able to receive vaccinations due to medical conditions, allergies or medications safe by removing them from school for a few weeks, Himes said.

Children who are not able to receive vaccinations also must retrieve a signed medical waiver from a physician.

Osceola County

As of Feb. 1, Reed City Public Schools had 108 waivers (4 percent of children in the geographic district), Evart Public Schools had 31 (3 percent), Trinity Lutheran School had 30, Marion Public Schools had 14 (3 percent), Pine River Area Schools had seven (1 percent) and Daystar Academy had six. Trinity Lutheran is included in the RCAPS district and Daystar Academy is included in the EPS district.

RCAPS Superintendent Tim Webster was surprised to learn the numbers of waivers within the district.

"I don't like that people don't get vaccinated, but we have to follow the law," he said. "Our process is to follow the rules and laws that are given to us."

Webster said each year during registration, RCAPS hosts members of the health department at the event to provide necessary immunizations and booster shots for the convenience of the parents, and will continue to do so.

Waivers in Osceola County are lower than the rest of the counties in the CMDHD's jurisdiction, Himes said.

Mecosta County

As of Feb. 1, the Chippewa Hills School District had 31 waivers (5 percent; among the student body population, including medical waivers), Crossroads Charter Academy had 24 (15 percent), Big Rapids Public Schools had 14 (3 percent), Morley Stanwood Community Schools had 10 (3 percent) and the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District had two (1 percent).

Chippewa Hills Superintendent Shirley Howard is curious to learn which building holds the most number of un-vaccinated children, though the data collected by the health department does not include that information.

"If those kids who aren't vaccinated are all within a certain building, I'd be concerned," Howard said. "But with a district population of 2,200, 31 waivers isn't much. In my opinion, waivers due to philosophical reasons means the kids never got around to getting vaccinated. But I think making parents go to the health department to get the waivers is going to help."

Fifteen percent of the Crossroads Charter Academy student body has vaccine waivers. Superintendent Pamela Duffy said though parents may be concerned by that number, her hands are tied.

"We are following what the state of Michigan law says," Duffy added. "We have to follow the law."

The health and safety of each student is of the utmost importance; however, and the staff are keen to keeping an eye on the youth, she added. The school adheres to a sound policy on sending students home when they are ill, and the building is disinfected and sanitized often to keep things as clean as possible, Duffy said.

Children without waivers in compliance with vaccine requirements across Mecosta County school districts range between 97 and 100 percent. Though the numbers throughout the districts may seem high, the total percentage of waivers in Mecosta County is 5 percent.

"I personally don't think that's too bad," Walicki said. "Other areas like Traverse City are pretty high, but I think for our county it's pretty average."

Future Impact

Although the recent outbreak of measles puts children and adults at risk, it may be changing the minds of parents who consider receiving a vaccination waiver.

"I think it's impacting people, making them think and pay more attention to getting their children vaccinated," Himes said.

Himes said the number of waivers slightly increased since November of last year, but hopes the numbers will taper off as time goes by. Surprisingly, she is seeing senior citizens beginning to ask if they are in need of booster shots. Walicki also is seeing local residents who are making sure they are up-to-date on all immunizations and booster shots.

"It's a very good thing," Himes added. "We're glad to see it."

In the case of the measles vaccine, individuals are considered immune if they were born in the U.S. before 1957, have a laboratory evidence of immunity, have laboratory confirmation of measles or have written documentation of adequate measles vaccination.

Walicki believes the number of waivers will decrease as awareness about immunizations spreads.

"I think in general, it's really increased the conversation about vaccines and is receiving a positive response," she said. "We're really trying to protect these kids. It's really important to vaccinate all the children who can get the vaccinations to protect those kids who cannot receive them."

For more information about vaccines or vaccine waivers, call the Central Michigan District Health Department at (231) 832-5532 or District Health Department No. 10 at (231) 592-0130.