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Some choose to refuse or delay childhood immunizations on moral, philosophical grounds

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Jimmy and Stephanie France have not had their 2-year-old son vaccinated against childhood diseases — and they don’t plan to.

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“I don’t feel that it’s necessary,” Jimmy said.

The immunity his son received through breast milk provided “everything he needs to combat anything he’s exposed to,” he said.

But mostly, the East Grand Forks, Minn., couple don’t want their youngest child injected with substances they consider to be toxic, Stephanie said.  

“Vaccines contain GMO (genetically modified organisms) and formaldehyde,” she said. “Who wants that injected into your body?

“My biggest regret in life is having my three older children vaccinated,” she said.

One of them has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, and another is blind in one eye, a condition resulting from a swollen optic nerve that was discovered when the child was in kindergarten.

“Is it a coincidence?” Jimmy said. “I’m leaning towards not.”

He and his wife are not against the medical industry or medical science, Jimmy said. He added that they don’t trust pharmaceutical companies because “they skew their evidence.”

“We’re not told the whole truth,” he said.  

Although serious complications related to childhood vaccines are rare — and studies have found no link between vaccines and autism — many parents are still concerned about childhood vaccinations.

In North Dakota and Minnesota, vaccinations are mandated by law, but parents may refuse to have their children vaccinated on philosophical, moral or religious grounds. Or they may seek an exemption from a physician stating that a vaccination may threaten their child’s health.

In North Dakota, parents need to print out, sign and return a form to the health department.

In Minnesota, a similar form for a “conscientious exemption” must be signed by the parent and notarized by a notary public.

In both states, the exemption rates have crept up in recent years.

“Every year, it increases a little bit,” said Amy Schwartz, immunization surveillance coordinator at the North Dakota Department of Health.

“We’re concerned, because all around the U.S., you see outbreaks of those vaccine-preventable diseases” such as measles, mumps and pertussis.   

“Diseases you haven’t seen in years are coming back in huge numbers,” Schwartz said.

“For example, measles can come with complications such as encephalitis or even death,” she said. “Measles spreads really easily and can be severe in adults.”

CDC study

A study last year by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention addressed the relationship between autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, and vaccination, focusing on the number of vaccines and vaccine antigens given to children, according to the recommended immunization schedule.

The study was the first of its kind to evaluate the issue of “too many vaccines too soon” and the development of ASD.

Although scientific evidence has shown that vaccines do not cause autism, a recent survey shows that nearly 23 percent of parents are worried that their children receive too many vaccines by the age of 2.

Another survey revealed that one in 10 parents of young children refuses or delays vaccinations in the belief that delaying vaccines is safer than giving vaccines according to the CDC-recommended schedule.     

The parents of four children, Callie Schneider and her husband, of Grand Forks, “chose not to vaccinate our children after taking the time to do research and educate ourselves about vaccines,” she said in an email.

“I think every parent worries about their child getting sick regardless if they are vaccinated or not,” she said. “I just feel that if my child does become sick, their body will know how to heal itself because that’s what it is designed to do.

“Our bodies are supposed to get sick — that’s how we build our immune systems.”   

Community could be at risk

Dr. Jennifer Peterson, a pediatrician at Altru Clinic in Grand Forks, estimated that 10 percent of the parents who visit her office express concern about childhood vaccines.  

“What I tend to see more is fear of vaccines in general,” she said.

Peterson said she is concerned about parents choosing not to vaccinate their children.

“We need to have a certain number of children vaccinated in the community,” she said.

Other parts of the country — such as Ohio, California, Oregon and Washington — have “pockets” of the population that choose not to vaccinate their children.

If the vaccination rate falls below a certain level, it puts a community at risk, she said.  

“We like to keep the rate up to about 90 percent. If it’s below 85 percent, the population technically is at risk.”

Physicians are seeing more and more cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, “and more measles than we’ve seen in a very long time,” she said.

There hasn’t been a local measles outbreak, Peterson said. “We’ve been lucky so far.”

At least 539 people in 20 states have been infected with measles this year, according to the CDC.  

Those kinds of outbreaks “are potentially an airplane ride away (from occurring here),” Peterson said. “For example, if a family goes to California and brings back the disease. I don’t want to see my patients get sick. A child could get it if they’re not vaccinated.”

Measles is a highly contagious virus that is transmitted through the air, she said.   

MMR vaccine, autism

In the past, more parents were worried about or objected to the MMR vaccine, said Peterson, who has been a practicing pediatrician for 14 years.

“But that has fallen by the wayside because parents realize there really hasn’t been anything to prove an association between (the vaccine) and autism.”  

The MMR, which is intended to protect children from measles, mumps and rubella, is given before a child reaches 12 to 15 months and as a booster shot between ages 4 and 6, she said.

Peterson understands why parents react as they do.  

“When a child is diagnosed with autism, it’s overwhelming to parents,” she said. “They’re looking for a cause; they’re looking for reasons. And vaccines often get blamed for it.”

That point of view has been spread via the Internet and some media sources, she said.

It hasn’t, however, gained a strong foothold in this region.    

“In the Midwest, the overall population is very ‘pro-vaccine.’ Overall, parents are very good about protecting their children and getting vaccines at the appropriate times.”

However, the Frances say they are protecting their son by not having him vaccinated.

Vaccines “have not been proven safe for children,” Stephanie France said.  

“Parents should at least try to make an informed decision,” Jimmy France said.

“My fear is that a lot of people are doing it be because it’s become the norm — that’s what you do with your child.”  

Delaying vaccination

Some parents choose to delay vaccinations out of concern that giving too many at one time is not healthy for the child.

“The (immunization) schedule is developed for a reason,” Peterson said. “It is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  

“There is no scientific evidence that a slower schedule (of immunizations) benefits the child.”

While she’s concerned about all vaccination-preventable diseases, she worries about infants who are not getting meningitis vaccinations, which are part of the “infant series” given at 2, 4, 6 and 12 or 15 months.

These vaccines protect against two types of bacterial meningitis, she said.

“If parents wait until 2 years of age (to vaccinate their child), many times that child is at highest risk for getting the disease.”    

But if parents prefer to delay vaccinations, Peterson honors that request, she said, noting that it’s better to get some than none.

She has heard of doctors in other parts of the country who refuse to see patients who won’t get their children vaccinated according to the schedule, she said, although she doesn’t know of any locally who’ve adopted that stance.

Stephanie France points to Japan, where, she said, delaying childhood vaccinations until age 2 has resulted in a 50 percent drop in cases of sudden infant death syndrome.

“In the U.S., we have the highest number of vaccines and the highest rate of diseases,” she said. “We shouldn’t have that.”

Peterson and her colleagues “strongly encourage patients to vaccinate on schedule,” she said. “Overwhelmingly, physicians support vaccinations.   

“Vaccines are safe and effective,” she said. “Vaccines don’t cause disease, they prevent disease.”

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