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County health departments scramble to meet demand for vaccine waivers before school starts

graph showing decline in mortality after vaccination initiatives.
Centers for Disease Control
Vaccines have greatly reduced the deaths from contagious diseases like polio, measles, and whooping cough.

County health departments are in their usual August scramble to schedule meetings with parents who don't want to vaccinate their children.
State law requires parents of incoming preschoolers, kindergartners, and seventh-graders to meet with a health official if they want a vaccine waiver. The health officials inform parents that vaccines are safe and protect children from serious illnesses that can sometimes be fatal.

At many K-12 schools in Michigan, student vaccination rates are below 95 percent, the threshold doctors say is necessary for "herd immunity" against a disease. That leaves children more vulnerable to outbreaks of measles, mumps, rubella, and whooping cough.

an infographic
Credit Center for Disease Control and Prevention
An illustration of "herd immunity" that shows what happens in a population that is mostly unvaccinated, versus mostly vaccinated.

Chris Zilke is with the Washtenaw County Health Department.

She says during the roughly 20-minute sessions, nurses explain the facts about immunizations to parents to counter any misinformation they may believe.

"Sometimes they have heard some things or seen things on websites, Facebook, or other places where they're getting information second hand," said Zilke. "It's anecdotal."

She says anecdotes seem to have more influence on some parents than facts, but it's necessary to keep trying. One thing parents won't get is a harsh, condemning lecture if they let their kids remain unvaccinated.

"This is not meant to be a situation where anybody is belittled or told that their choice is wrong," said Zilke. "It's to make sure they have the information needed to make a good decision."

At Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services, each nurse is limited to four parent education sessions each day, says Deputy Director Lynne Norman.  "It can be tiring," she said.  "You can tell by looking at their faces before you start talking that they have made up their minds against vaccines."

But Norman says she has seen some successes, too. There are parents that do change their minds, especially if they come to the sessions on the fence about what to do.

And many times, she says, when parents find out they have to attend a session, they go ahead and get their children vaccinated. Norman says that's because the main reason they hadn't vaccinated was because it wasn't convenient, not because they are against vaccines. 

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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