With school starting this month, nurses in Flagstaff have been busy giving students their shots. But a growing number of parents in Coconino County are opting not to immunize their children. Public-health officials fear this could mean the resurgence of diseases that were disappearing.
Seventeen-year-old Jazmyn Trillo has started her senior year at Flagstaff High School.
But first she needed to get a few shots at the Coconino County public health office.
Jazmyn’s mom, Irma Trillo stands by for moral support.
She says she brought her daughter and son in for booster shots because their schools require it. And, she says, “because I want them to stay healthy and not catch any bacterial or viral infections or diseases that are out there.”
Most parents in Coconino County immunize their children.
But a small but growing number of parents are saying no to shots.
The percentage of children in the county who are exempt from at least one vaccine has grown three-fold in the last five years, to 6.4 percent.
Most states allow unvaccinated children to attend school only if their parents request a religious exemption.
But Arizona and 17 other states also grant exemptions based on personal beliefs.
One parent taking advantage of that exemption is Moran Henn.
She’s not allowed her daughters to be vaccinated against chickenpox, whooping cough or hepatitis.
In fact last spring, when her daughters contracted chickenpox, she threw what’s called a pox party.
“It wasn’t like a big cake and ice cream party. It was just a play date.” Henn says.
A play date to expose five friends whose parents wanted them to also catch chicken pox, so they wouldn’t need vaccinations.
“Our kids today get 25 shots in less than 15 months. I think we rely very strongly on vaccines and chemical drugs to build our immune system and to boost our immune system, and I think for a lot of those things, we should actually just build our immune system, and I think chickenpox is an excellent opportunity to do that,” Henn says.
Henn’s older daughter is heading off to kindergarten next week at Pine Forest Charter School.
In 2010, half of the school’s kindergartners claimed an exemption on at least one vaccine.
Some other schools in Coconino County also have enough exempt students that public-health officials fear “community immunity” could suffer.
“The more people that we have vaccinated against these diseases, the healthier our community is going to be,” says nurse Jory Malis, who manages the county public health district’s immunization program.
“There are some people in our community with certain medical conditions who can’t be vaccinated, that could very easily die from these diseases. So it’s a responsibility we have to each other.”
But Marnie Vail disagrees.
“It’s not true that we’re protecting anybody with these vaccines,” says the retired medical doctor who now practices homeopathic medicine from her home in Flagstaff.
She says vaccines overwhelm children’s developing immune systems.
“For many children, the vaccines are the last straw. If their immune system is already compromised by generations of poor nutrition and unhealthy gut bacteria, they are vulnerable to damage from vaccines,” she says.
Vail argues that the mixtures of heavy metals, animal proteins and other chemicals used in vaccines lead to serious illnesses, like autism.
And vaccine supporters say, when side effects are serious or widespread, vaccine manufacturers recall or reformulate them.
Take the case of the whooping cough vaccine.
Manufacturers changed it because it caused relatively high rates of fevers and seizures.
But researchers now are concerned the new safer vaccine is less effective and could be a factor in the recent whooping cough epidemic
But vaccine opponent Vail says there is another theory.
Researchers at Penn State recently reported that the whooping cough or pertussis vaccine may be promoting the growth of a closely related disease.
“They are creating much more virulent strains of pertussis,” Vail says.
Malis, at the Coconino County public health office, says while vaccines do sometimes have side effects, most are minor.
The alternative, she says is far worse.
Someone could die from a childhood disease.