Students skip vaccines under religious exemption

LAS VEGAS — As the school year kicks off, hundreds of parents have been taking their children to southern Nevada clinics to make sure their children have the required immunizations.

With Monday marking the first day of class in the Clark County School District, several clinics in the Las Vegas area saw 400 children a day, said Bonnie Sorenson with the Southern Nevada Health District.

Parents who keep an unvaccinated child in school could be charged with a misdemeanor, but exemptions under Nevada law allow thousands of parents to send their kids to school without the vaccines.

While the number of unvaccinated kids is a small percentage of all students, some Clark County school health officials worry about the risk of having thousands of unvaccinated students.

Last year, the Clark County School District enrolled about 6,000 unvaccinated students, district nursing director Lynn Row said. That’s only about 2 percent of the district’s student population.

Some of those students have a medical exemption from shots, but Row told The Las Vegas Review-Journal that 70 percent of those unvaccinated students cited a Nevada law allowing families to opt-out if the shots violate their religious beliefs.

Every state requires that public school students be immunized for multiple diseases. Every state also offers exemptions for medical reasons, such as allergies to the vaccine ingredients.

All but two states allow families to opt-out for religious reasons, as Nevada does.

Row said she supports allowing students to opt-out for medical reasons, but she’s concerned about religious exemptions.

Students who opt-out for religious reasons are not only at risk for contracting diseases themselves — they also risk spreading disease to those who can’t get the shots for medical reasons, Row said. “It really does put those kids at risk,” she said.

Row cites the rise in many states of reported cases of pertussis, a highly contagious disease commonly known as whooping cough.

The number of reported cases across the country grew by 25 percent in the first six months of this year as compared with the same time in 2013, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While neighboring states such as California have reported a jump in cases, Nevada has not yet seen an increase.

Sorenson, with the health district, said that may be because Nevada is not one of the 19 states that also allow kids to skip vaccines if parents object based on philosophical or personal beliefs.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, states with more exemptions can have higher rates of unvaccinated children and often report higher rates of pertussis cases,

Barbara Lowe Fisher, co-founder and president of the Virginia-based National Vaccine Information Center, said many states have narrow restrictions for a medical opt-out, so the religious and philosophical exemptions are an important protection for parents.

Fisher’s nonprofit defends the rights of patients to informed consent and to opt-out of vaccines. The group does not advocate for or against the use of vaccines.

If parents believe their child is at risk for a vaccine reaction, Fisher said, “It’s every parent’s right to protect their child’s health.”


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