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Non-medical vaccine exemptions for school children on the rise in the Miami Valley

Mills Lawn Elementary School in Yellow Springs had the lowest kindergarten vaccination rate in the state in 2014.
Claire Myree
Kristen Bowser holds her three year old daughter Delaney while she gets the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Dayton Children's earlier this year. Delaney shed a few tears after the initial “ouchie” of the shot, but felt much better after the nurse gave her a Reese's cup.

20 children have been hospitalized so far from a measles outbreak that started last month in Columbus–the vast majority of them are not vaccinated against the viral infection.

Journalists at the Dayton Daily News have been looking into state data on school vaccine exemptions. They've found that in some local school districts more than ten percent of kindergarteners are unvaccinated against measles because their parents filed a personal, moral or religious exemption. WYSO's Chris Welter spoke with Samantha Wildow from the DDN about why the exemptions are worrying medical professionals.

Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity):

Samantha Wildow (DDN): Measles is a contagious respiratory disease caused by a virus. We're protected against it through a vaccine. The current outbreak is in west central Ohio, so it's not quite in our area yet, but it can spread really easily. It's so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90% of the people close to them who are not immune will also become infected. The symptoms are high fever, coughing, runny nose, watery eyes, but also, 3 to 5 days after the symptoms begin, there's that red blotchy rash that measles is kind of known for– it begins at the hairline and goes down the neck and your arms and the rest of the body.

The United States declared measles eliminated in 2000, but there's been outbreaks and cases have risen since then. There's no treatment for the measles so the way we protect ourselves against it is by getting vaccinated.

Chris Welter (WYSO): What are health officials in the Miami Valley saying about the measles outbreak up in Columbus?

Samantha: They are advising parents to make sure they get their kids vaccinated. There were a lot of kids who got off schedule with their vaccinations following COVID. So doctors are just reminding parents that it's important to keep your kids safe from this–It's a vaccine preventable disease.

Chris: In your reporting, you have been looking into the data on child vaccines at area schools. What have you found out? What are the numbers showing?

Samantha: We have seen an increase in the number of kids whose parents or guardians are opting them out of getting vaccinated due to religious and personal objections. For the 2021/2022 school year from the Ohio Department of Health, there were 14 elementary schools in the region where at least 10% of the kindergartners’ parents or guardians opted them out of getting those required vaccines due to religious or moral objections, which is more than previous years. There were about five schools over that threshold the previous year, and statewide, the percentage of students with moral or religious exemptions is lower–It's around 2.4 to 3.2%.

Chris: What do those numbers mean? And do those trends connect to what we're seeing with the measles outbreak that's happening in Columbus right now?

Samantha: There is a growing vaccine hesitancy. Of course, it was happening before the pandemic but from when we've talked to health officials, school officials and epidemiologists, it seems to be worse now. It seems to be coinciding with the rollout of the COVID vaccines.

10% of kindergarteners with vaccine exemptions is quite high. With measles, in order to get that herd immunity, to protect kids who can't get vaccinated because of allergies to the ingredients, we kind of need to reach a 95% vaccine level. So if your school is over 10%, then you're obviously not going to reach that 95% in your school to protect all the other kids.

I think some people became aware of the previous anti-vaccine movement that was going on before COVID, and maybe COVID brought attention to that because if they were nervous about COVID, maybe they became nervous about other vaccines as well. I think a lot of people might be looking at different raw data or information online that isn't necessarily peer reviewed raw data. It can be confusing to try to interpret that. I always think it's best to talk to your doctor if you're concerned, if your children should not get a vaccine, if there's any medical reason for them not to get a vaccine, your doctors will definitely know that. We have these vaccine requirements in place to try and protect kids who have medical exemptions, who can't get their vaccines for medical reasons.

Chris Welter is a reporter and corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Chris Welter is an Environmental Reporter at WYSO through Report for America. In 2017, he completed the radio training program at WYSO's Eichelberger Center for Community Voices. Prior to joining the team at WYSO, he did boots-on-the-ground conservation work and policy research on land-use issues in southwest Ohio as a Miller Fellow with the Tecumseh Land Trust.