Vaccine Exemptions on the Rise in Connecticut Classrooms

By Sabina Kuriakose
|  Thursday, Feb 6, 2014  |  Updated 4:42 PM EDT
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More and more families are opting out  of immunizing their children, going against the grain of traditional medicine and alarming public health officials.

More and more families are opting out of immunizing their children, going against the grain of traditional medicine and alarming public health officials.

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New Britain mom Kristen Werblow and her two daughters are like any typical Connecticut family, but early on, Kristen says she made a different choice for her children.

“We don’t vaccinate at all,” she said.

Kristen, a health coach, said her family pursues a healthy, all-natural lifestyle that doesn’t include vaccines.

“The hardest part is the judgment from other people and the fear," Werblow said. "Everybody is really scared. So you really have to make an informed decision. You have to weigh out the risks."

While controversial, that decision is gaining traction among parents in the state.

The Troubleshooters obtained some eye-opening information. The number of Connecticut school children opting out of one or more vaccinations has more than doubled, from 465 kids in 2003 to 1,153 kids in 2012. That’s still just a fraction of kids entering schools, which stood at about 85,000 last year.

Medical exemptions have gone up steadily in that time span, from 149 to 243. Yet it’s the religious exemptions, which are easier to get, that have almost tripled, going from 316 to 910.

The state vaccine medical exemption form requires both a parent’s signature and a doctor’s letter, while the religious exemption requires only a parent to sign off.

Nationally, almost every state has religious and medical vaccine exemptions. The Troubleshooters wanted to know what has fueled the rise in exemptions.

“It’s been an information explosion over the last five years,” said Dr. Ann Aresco with Kensington Naturopath Medical Center.

“The Autism epidemic is growing, the ADHD epidemic is growing, sensory issues, behavioral issues, all of these neurological issues are growing, and they’re growing in association with the increased number of vaccines,” added naturopath Dr. Jared Skowron.

Both Aresco and Skowron promote natural remedies over traditional medicine. They said more and more of their patients are swearing off some or all vaccines for their children because they fear possible side effects.

"They'll say there's no proof that it does cause Autism, but there's also no proof that it doesn't," said Aresco.

But not all practioners agree.

“It is completely junk science,” counters Dr. Norbert Herzog, with Quinnipiac University’s School of Medicine.

He said there is no evidence of a link between vaccines and Autism, and any research to the contrary has been completely debunked.

“Those arguments are specious. They make no sense whatsoever. And they come down to people’s emotions rather than the science,” said Herzog.

Herzog said despite the overwhelming proof of vaccines’ benefits, damage is being done by those who argue against them.

“This is going to lead to a lot of issues down the road. Children in schools where a lot of children are not vaccinated are at risk,” he said.

Health experts cite a recent study published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which found a direct link between vaccine exemptions and a deadly outbreak of whooping cough in California.

Whooping cough is also a concern here in Connecticut. In 2012, outbreaks sickened 182 people. The state health department has not made any connection between vaccine exemptions and whooping cough cases.

“Once it’s in the unimmunized kids, the risk of it spreading to the immunized kids and the immune-compromised kids is much, much greater,” said Connecticut Children’s Medical Center’s Dr. Nick Bennett, who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases.

He said more and more parents want to delay vaccinations. Bennett said that’s better than opting out completely, but it may still cause damage.

“It’s a bit like wearing your seatbelt in the car. You wouldn’t click your seatbelt the second before you see the crash coming. You click it as soon as you get in the car," Bennett said. "And in the same way, we want to immunize the kids as soon as we can on a known, proven, effective schedule. So when they’re out in the real world, they’re covered."

Matt Earls, a father of three, said he's leery of sending his young children to school with classmates who have skipped vaccinations.

“I mean, there are cured diseases that my children are now exposed to,” said Matt Earls, a father of three.

He worries most that his older kids will carry illness home to his 1-year-old daughter.

“These people are making a choice that puts my child at risk,” said Earls.

Still, Werblow told the Troubleshooters she made her choice carefully.

“If there was an outbreak, we have a doctor that we’ve already spoken to who has dealt with cases of children who are not vaccinated. And so we know that if something ever did happen we do have a plan. But we feel very strong in our decision,” she said, “It’s what we believe in and we should all have the right to have our beliefs honored.”

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