Education

Vaccines are required for most students. Exemptions are on the rise in Manatee County

What to expect when your child is vaccinated

Serious reactions are actually very rare but here are some things parents might expect after their child’s vaccine visit.
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Serious reactions are actually very rare but here are some things parents might expect after their child’s vaccine visit.

Vaccination forms are required for kindergarten students, seventh-graders and new arrivals to a Manatee County school, either public or private, but more students are avoiding the requirement each year.

A licensed physician is required to vet requests for a temporary or permanent medical exemption, which might be granted to someone with a compromised immune system, for example. But hundreds of Manatee County families will likely take advantage of a religious exemption before the start of school in August, which only requires their signature.

“I am the parent or legal guardian of the above-named child,” the form states. “Immunizations are in conflict with my religious tenets or practices.”

Statewide, religious exemptions have skyrocketed among children up to 18 years old. Between 2011 and 2018, the number climbed from less than 7,000 to nearly 25,000, according to records from the Florida Department of Health.

Locally, the number of religious exemptions rose from 113 to 359 during the same time period. The state health department also published numbers for the most recent school year, pertaining only to students in kindergarten and seventh grade:

Kindergarten (public and private)

  • Temporary medical exemptions: 80
  • Permanent medical exemptions: 6
  • Permanent religious exemptions: 77

Seventh grade (public and private)

  • Temporary medical exemptions: 23
  • Permanent medical exemptions: 8
  • Permanent religious exemptions: 76

When the majority of people are vaccinated, diseases are slowed and outbreaks are prevented, said Donna Priest, a leader within Manatee’s health department.

The concept, known as “herd immunity,” is a benefit to the students and staff who can’t be immunized, and those who don’t have a strong immune response to vaccines.

“If you have more and more people who choose not to vaccinate, you see an increased rate of these preventable diseases,” Priest said.

She pointed to a new initiative that launched on July 11. At a minimum, every county health department will staff a licensed practical nurse to educate families on the risks and benefits of childhood vaccinations, according to an email from the Florida DOH.

“These changes were made to improve and standardize the process for offering and providing education when a religious exemption is requested,” it states.

However, if a parent decides they want to move forward with a religious exemption, the health departments are still barred from requiring “proof of religion.”

“Some people, it truly is their religion or they truly feel strongly about something, and they’re not going to change their mind,” Priest said. “But we want them to understand that, if they have questions, they can come back and ask us. We’re not going to hound them, but we want them to know there is good education out there.”

When it comes to vaccine exemptions, it’s unlikely that every family is influenced by a specific religion, but they are motivated by a strong belief system, said Meredith Plant, as assistant professor of pediatrics with USF Health in Tampa.

“They believe at their core that a vaccine will hurt their child,” Plant said.

Many of the concerned men and women are thoughtful parents who researched the subject and were influenced by faulty information, she said, pointing to a study that dates back more than 20 years. A former doctor was central to the flawed — perhaps fraudulent — study that linked vaccinations with autism.

“Even though that has since been disproved time and time again, and a lot of ulterior motives behind him writing that paper has come to light, there’s still a large portion of the population that still thinks vaccines and autism are related,” Plant said.

She believes families are also influenced by a fear of the unknown. Vaccines are required for young students, and parents have a natural instinct to protect their children.

Sometimes a child is vaccinated and they suffer a health problem soon after. Parents may feel the two are related when, really, the only connection is that both occurred in a similar time frame.

“I think part of that downfall is we don’t do a very good job of communicating with them, and really trying to understand why they’re concerned,” Plant said.

A preventable disease can take students and teachers away from the classroom. In the event of an outbreak, students with a religious exemption can be temporarily barred from school altogether, Plant said, citing the exemption form.

“Those children identified as not being immunized against the disease for which the emergency has been declared shall be temporarily excluded from the facility by the district school board or governing authority until such time as is specified by the county health department director or administrator,” it states.

Since measles is still common in many countries, unvaccinated travelers bring measles to the U.S. and it can spread. But you can protect yourself, your family, and your community with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Throughout various grade levels, the immunization requirements include vaccines for tetanus, polio, Hepatitis B and chickenpox. Other vaccines, such as those for Hepatitis A or HPV, are recommended, according to Priest.

“It can be a controversial subject but, really, at the end of the day we’re all trying to do right by our kids,” she said.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. The HPV vaccine, when administered to boys and girls, can prevent transmission of the virus and reduce the risk of related cancers.

For those who want to schedule an appointment for their child’s vaccinations, or to learn about the risks and benefits of immunization, the county health department can be reached at 941-748-0747, extension 0.

The county health department is also holding a vaccination clinic during “Christmas in August,” hosted by the Bradenton Kiwanis Club at LECOM Park, 1611 Ninth St. W. The event is scheduled for 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Aug. 3, according to a news release from the health department.

“The Department of Health is providing free immunization services for eligible children up to the age of 18 who are enrolled in elementary, middle or high school,” it states. “School physicals are offered by morning appointments for $45 per child.”

HPV is human papilloma virus which doctors say can cause infections which can lead to adult cancers including cervical, head, throat, neck and others.

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