Bringing it home: Parents debate vaccine safety
November 8, 2014
Editor's note: "Bringing It Home" runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
As flu season descends upon the Roaring Fork Valley, flu shots are being offered at a wide variety of places, from doctor's offices to grocery stores.
There's a healthy debate that comes up often about the pros and cons of vaccinations. With diseases such as polio a thing of the past in the United States and most of the world, vaccinations have been given credit for saving millions of lives worldwide.
However, there are still parents who make conscious decisions not to immunize their children after it came to light that there are vaccinations that include substances such as aluminum, which helps stimulate an earlier, more potent response; formaldehyde, which is used to kill unwanted viruses and bacteria that might contaminate the vaccine; and thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative added to vials of vaccines that contain more than one dose to prevent contamination and growth of bacteria.
A recent spike in measles and whooping cough cases in Colorado led to the Colorado General Assembly passing House Bill 1288, which took effect July 1. The bill requires a number of actions related to immunizations on the part of schools, child care centers, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the Colorado Board of Health.
Schools and child care centers are required to make the immunization and exemption rates of their enrolled students publicly available upon request. The law also directs the Department of Public Health to provide assistance to schools and child care centers with the analysis and interpretation of the immunization data.
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The Colorado Board of Health is directed to make rules regarding an online education module, including the benefits and risks of immunization using evidence-based research, resources and information from credible scientific and public-health organizations and peer-reviewed studies.
The Board of Health anticipates that parents, providers or other interested parties may use the module. The Board of Health is directed to make rules regarding the frequency of submitting immunization exemption forms and is directed to work with other state departments to develop joint immunization-data-collection and sharing policies.
Liz Stark is a registered nurse and has worked for Community Health Services in Aspen for eight years. She's currently the director.
She said that as HB-1288 was being developed, it was intended to be stronger in the encouragement of immunizations, but the public wasn't quite ready for that. Since the bill requires schools to post their vaccination numbers publicly, Stark sees that as a way for concerned parents to decide if they feel safe having their children in that school or not.
"As a public-health nurse, I believe in vaccines and immunizations," she said. "I vaccinated my own children. I do believe that they are the best measures that public health has to prevent disease. We've eradicated many diseases in this country due to vaccines, like polio. We had measles under control until recently, when we saw some outbreaks due to probably fewer parents vaccinating their children for measles. We understand the concerns that parents have about vaccinating their children. Over the last several years, the number of vaccines that young children have to receive has increased. At the Community Health Services clinic where I work, we really try to work with the parents to honor their concerns and provide them with scientific data about the safety of vaccines."
Under current Colorado law, parents are able to opt out of vaccinating their children with a statement of exemption for religious or personal beliefs. Stark said she couldn't see any legitimate reasons to opt out of having children receive immunizations.
"I think there's a lot of information out there that isn't necessarily science-based," Stark said, "one of them being the connection between some vaccines and autism. It's been proven scientifically that there's no relation between vaccinating and autism. But that information still circulates and creates a lot of fear amongst parents. I can't think of a legitimate reason to refuse vaccinations, but I understand that fear and concerns and try to work with those parents."
In the Aspen School District, out of 1,700 kids, the overall average exemption rate to immunizing is around 5 percent. The individual immunization skipped the most (at a 6 percent rate) is for hepatitis B.
According to registered nurse Elise Dreher, the Aspen School District nurse, it's a state law that a family provide an immunization record upon registration for school. The record doesn't have to be complete at the time of enrollment. The family has two weeks to be in the process of getting the required immunizations or providing an exemption to receiving immunizations.
Nikki Lapin is the office manager for the Aspen Fire Protection District and has a 5-year-old child that was given the full range of immunizations that her doctor recommended.
Even during the immunizations, Lapin carried some doubts concerning the safety of the vaccinations. She spoke with her doctor about the pros and cons and felt her doctor was certainly pro-immunization.
"I've read a lot of conflicting information and heard stories about some serious side effects associated with immunizations," she said. "It's a real struggle to figure out what's appropriate. Of course, you want your child to be protected, but the other spectrum is you don't want to put your child at risk."
Lapin said another factor in immunizing her child is the pressure she felt as her child entered the public school system.
"They're so adamant about the kids having immunizations," Lapin said. "I have friends who are completely against it and haven't done any of the immunizations, and as far as I know, their kids are very healthy."
When asked if she would go through all the same immunizations again with her child, Lapin said she probably would.
"I don't know what the right answer is, and my husband and I struggled with this," she said. "I'm not a doctor, and I'm relying on the medical world to give us honest information on what's right and what's wrong with immunizations. I just want my child to be safe."
Heather Lutgring, of Aspen, has a 9-year-old daughter who received all the required immunizations growing up.
"Honestly, I don't know that there was a well-thought-out plan for it," Lutgring said. "That's what we do; we immunize. Both my grandparents were doctors, and I grew up in a family where we took medicines. I'm from a family of doctors that believe in immunizations. I've never done any research, but I have friends that do not immunize and feel strongly about it. I think everybody has a right to his or her own decision. I don't think it's necessarily unsafe for them not to immunize. Our family has always subscribed to what the medical community believes."
Aspenite Mike Tunte has two children and did plenty of research before deciding to have his children immunized.
"I don't have any concerns or worries," Tunte said. "The studies in the scientific communities are pretty clear about it. I have enough confidence to give my children immunizations. The downside of not having immunizations far outweighs the perceived risk of doing them. My kids have been rock-solid-healthy so far. It's unfortunate in this debate when you bring to the same level individuals who will support the Jenny McCarthys that come out and say immunizations cause autism and it scares people off. That's really unfortunate and does a disservice to society. The debate, quite frankly, is just not there."
Ben Frey, of Glenwood Springs, doesn't believe in overimmunizing.
"There are some one-time immunizations that I can understand and support, but for the more common diseases, like the flu shot, it's a gimmick and a scam," he said. "It's the pharmaceutical companies taking your money to make you sick. A flu shot is more likely to make you sick than prevent you from getting sick."