Low vaccination rates worry health officials

By BECKY McKENDRY

Capital News Service

LANSING – As flu season looms, public health officials are trying to figure out how to combat Michigan’s low vaccination rates – among the nation’s worst.

Recommended vaccinations vary widely depending on age and health condition. But statistics show that even the most commonly recommended vaccinations – such as influenza and Tdap, which protects against diseases like tuberculosis and pertussis  – are not administered enough.

Vaccine Fact Box

For example, last year, 41.8 percent of Americans over the age of 6 months received a flu shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Michigan ranked 41st, with only 38.8 percent of residents receiving a flu shot.

That comes on the heels of a widespread influenza outbreak in the 2010-11 season, when the CDC recommended vaccinations for everyone older than 6 months.

“There are still a lot of myths surrounding vaccines that are hard to quash,” said Wendy Ridenour, the immunization coordinator for the Ingham County Health Department.

“People still think you can get the flu from the flu shot, which is not true,” she said. “You hear parenting groups claiming that vaccines cause autism, which has not been proven. People are holding onto those myths when they need to find the science.”

Ridenour administered flu and Tdap shots to the public at a recent Ingham County Board of Health meeting.

During that meeting, Deputy Health Officer Nancy Hayward said the ease of allowing children to opt out of vaccinations may be behind Michigan’s low numbers.

Along with 47 other states, Michigan allows parents to avoid vaccinating their child if they receive waiver based on medical concerns or religious beliefs.

But Hayward said that because proof of vaccinations is required to enter school, some parents scrambling to enroll may turn in a waiver and forget to immunize their child afterwards.

Ultimately, local health departments decide whether the waiver is granted, though, and some health departments have more stringent policies than others.

Jackie Skelton, a nurse at the Allegan County Health Department, says her agency requires an appointment to obtain a waiver.

“We have to go over the form together and they have to talk with me,” Skelton said. “We do not give waivers unless it’s a true philosophical or religious reason. We won’t grant a waiver if parents are just pinched for time.”

The Michigan Care Improvement Registry tracks recommended immunizations for children. In the most recent report, which tracked a series of immunizations for children 13 to 18 years old for a year and a half, Allegan County boasted high numbers – in any given month, its vaccination rates were almost 20 percent higher than the statewide average.

Skelton said Allegan County’s small population allows her to personally handle all waiver appointments and educate parents.

In a few instances, she said, she cleared up misinformation and parents ended up choosing to vaccinate their children.

“It’s really important for health departments to address the parents non-confrontationally and make sure what they’re basing their decision off of is accurate,” she said.

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