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More Parents Not Vaccinating Kids

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The number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children for kindergarten enrollment in California has nearly quadrupled in the last 20 years. A report by the San Diego Watchdog Institute examined immunization data in California for the past two decades. The report found a growing number of parents sending their kids to school without state-mandated immunizations.

— The number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children in California has nearly quadrupled in the last 20 years. A report by the San Diego Watchdog Institute examined immunization data in California for the past two decades. The report found a growing number of parents sending their kids to school without state-mandated immunizations.

Parents like Lara Hayes. “My daughter's five and my son is two and they’ve never been to a doctor,” Hayes says.

Lara Hayes had home births for both her children and plans to do the same for her third baby, now on the way.

Summer Boger has two young children and is a holistic practitioner. “I do believe when you bombard your system with chemicals that fast directly into the bloodstream you are asking your body to have a strong reaction,” Boger says.

Robyjean Delia has three kids. “I believe, feel like immunization is another part of fear-based medicine, it's not natural. I think the way we’re made is perfect and I’d like to stick to that,” Delia says.

These women are among a growing number of parents who choose not to immunize their kids against diseases such as the measles, mumps and whooping cough.

Their decision takes on new scrutiny in California as the state battles its worst whooping cough epidemic in 50 years. Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly contagious respiratory illness. It may look and feel like a bad cold in older kids and adults, but for babies, it can be deadly. Eight infants in California have died from the illness this year, including a two-month-old boy from San Diego County.

A report by the San Diego-based journalism group the Watchdog Institute compiled data on immunization rates for kindergarten students for the past two decades in California. Last year, more then 10,000 parents signed personal exemption waivers. That means, because of their personal beliefs, their kids do not need to be immunized to be admitted to school.

In 1990, there were 2,700 such waivers filed in the state.

In San Diego County the overall exemption rate is 2.6 percent -- triple what it was two decades ago and slightly higher than the state average. It can also vary dramatically from school to school.

Reporter Helen Gao of the Watchdog Institute collected the data from the California Department of Public Health. “Some schools have really high exemption rates. Especially charter schools and private schools in the county, there’s one private school in the county that has 50 percent of its kindergarten class with immunization waiver,” Gao says.

Story continues below...

Schools & Vaccinations: Personal Belief Exemptions

By clicking on the map, you can see kindergarten enrollment and the number and percentage of personal belief exemptions for each school for 2008 and 2009, which are the most recent data available. Map by the Watchdog Institute.

Robyjean Delia and Lara Hayes both homeschool. Summer Boger sends her kids to a charter school which has a 33 percent exemption rate. “I don’t feel the diseases they would catch are life-threatening enough that I would threaten their life by bombarding them with something that’s foreign to their body directly into their bloodstream,” Boger says.

Boger and the other moms believe breastfeeding and good nutrition will provide their kids with the immunity they need. “Breastfeeding is one of your best defenses against immunizing your child and that’s an active decision I made with not immunizing I made sure I breastfed and breastfed on demand,” Hayes says.

Experts like Dr. Dean Sidelinger disagree. Sidelinger is the deputy public health officer for San Diego County. Sidelinger says breastfeeding gives infants only fleeting immunity from some illnesses; it does not replace vaccines.

“Good nutrition alone and great intentions of parents trying to limit exposure to people who are sick or to other children who might pass on the infection isn’t enough to prevent all diseases from being spread,” Sidelinger says.

Health officials say a now debunked study linking autism to vaccines and misinformation on the internet have contributed to the anti-vaccine movement.

Sidelinger says parents who choose not to vaccinate their kids must be aware they are making choices that affect everyone.

“It's also a decision that will have a broader public health protection because when they are out in the grocery store and there’s a baby in the next aisle or they’re sitting in the waiting room at their doctors office and the person next to them has had treatment for leukemia and not able to fight infections, if their child was sick they could potentially pass it on without even knowing it,” Sidelinger says.

Boger, Delia and Hayes are all aware of the criticism leveled against their decision. Lara Hayes was once kicked out of a mom’s group because her kids were not immunized.

“No, I don’t feel like I’m putting other people at risk, having the luxury of being a stay at home, I have the ability to keep them home,” Boger says.

Delia says immunizing your kids is “an extremely personal choice” and believes it’s up to parents to decide what’s best for their kids.

Striking that balance between personal choice and public good may be especially difficult in California as more parents stop immunizing their kids.

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