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San Diego Parents Opting Out Of Immunizations

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More San Diego county kindergarteners are starting school without being vaccinated. That's according to a new report out by SDSU's Watchdog Institute. It finds a growing number of California parents decided to skip some or all immunizations for their kindergarteners in 2010 -- by signing personal belief waivers.

Watchdog Institute: Search for personal belief exemption rates by school.


Kevin Crowe, reporter, Watchdog Institute

Dr. Dana Tankell, San Diego chiropractor and parent who opts out of vaccinating her children.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is the time of year when parents are making sure their kids have everything they need to start a new school year. But getting the proper vaccination system not on the to do list for a number of San Diego parents. A new report out by SDSU's Watch Dog Institute finds an increase in the number of San Diego kindergarten students whose parents are using personal belief waivers to skip some or all of their required immunizations. I'd like to welcome my guest, Kevin Crowe. He's a reporter for the Watch Dog Institute, which is an investigative reporting nonprofit based at SDSU. And hello, Kevin.

CROWE: Hi, Maureen. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: First of all, the increasing use of personal belief waivers to avoid vaccinations is something that you found across California; is that right?

CROWE: Right. The number of children who have started school with these waivers on file increased 15%, state wide, to almost 12,000.

CAVANAUGH: What is a personal belief waiver?

CROWE: It's a waiver that opts your child out of some or all vaccines. It's a form you sign. It's on your immunization record, or a parent or guardian signs, and it releases you.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have to explain your personal beliefs in any way or show any documentation of having had these personal beliefs? Or is it just a signature in.

CROWE: No, it's a signature. And the signature says essentially, your child in the event of an outbreak of a certain disease, your child may be excluded from school, so they may not be allowed to come to school, and you understand you're taking certain risks.

CAVANAUGH: So even though some vaccinations are, I guess quote unquote, required before kids can go to school or start the new school year, parents who sign these waivers, their kids don't have to be immunized.

CROWE: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: You looked at state wide numbers, but you also looked specifically at San Diego County about personal belief waivers. What did you find in.

CROWE: Well, we found that the number -- if you're talking on a county by county level, the number of personal belief exemptions grew most in San Diego. It grew by about 200, which really isn't a massive number. These kindergartners make up 2.3% of enrollment, and here it grew by about 21%.

CAVANAUGH: Did you discover about reason about why parents are opting out?

CROWE: For a number of reasons. Some still believe that that's a real link between the measles, mumps vaccine and a trigger of autism. Some prefer more holistic medicine practices. They just don't want to immunize their kids. Some parents are in favor of spacing out their immunizations, and so they may not have all the required immunizations by the time their kids start school. And others because the waiver is so easy to sign and so easy to come by, it might be easier for some parents to just sign the waiver than actually digging out their immunization records. So some of these kids do of their vaccinations, but they still have a waiver.

CAVANAUGH: So there's no way to know if these numbers if there is a growing opposition toward getting kids immunized.

CROWE: There's no way to tell if they're really going against a certain vaccine. The number of kids who are immunized in California is about 91%. In San Diego, it's about 92%. But it's hard to say if the 3.1% here or the 2.6% state wide are really whole.

CAVANAUGH: Another disturbing part of this report is the number of unvaccinated students that seem to be clustered in the same schools or the same areas. Tell us a little bit about that.

CROWE: Well, that's a trend that scientists have found initially, really. And in San Diego County, the -- about 50% of the students who have these waivers are clustered in about 10% of the schools. And state wide, it's like 47, 48% are in about seven% of the schools. And so that's -- it's not evenly spread out, and that's what concerns some health officials.

CAVANAUGH: Is there a school in San Diego County where there were more personal belief waivers than other schools?

CROWE: Well, oasis community school up in Encinitas had the highest percentage, about 83% of their students opted out. So that was ten out of 12. But it was -- Tajisa charter school had the most.

CAVANAUGH: Is there any kind of finding about whether or not there -- these are a special kind of school? Like are the students are a particular ethnic group or a particular socioeconomic group?

CROWE: Well, a doctor from the San Diego County health department, she said that typically these are white affluent families. And when you look at the rates county wide, charter schools, they average about 10% personal belief exemptions, traditional public schools average about two point something%, and then private schools, religious and nonreligious average about five%.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Kevin Crowe, he's a reporter for the Watch Dog Institute, out with a new report about the number of parents that are opting out of required vaccinations for their kids by signing personal belief waivers here in San Diego. And on the line with me is one of the parents featured in that report, doctor Dana Tankell, she's a San Diego chiropractor who has never vaccinated either of her school children. Welcome.

TANKELL: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I understand you're relieved, actually, to learn that other parents are opting out as well. Why is that?

TANKELL: Well, because I feel like that means they're educating themselves and they're actually looking into what the possibilities are of the vaccinations. It's not just oh, you know, let's vaccinate our children and the child will be healthy. It's there are risks involved with any time that you put anything into your body from the outside in.

CAVANAUGH: Now what risks do you think that your kids face by immunizing them? You have a 12-year-old and a seven-year-old; is that right?

TANKELL: Yes. I also have a 16-year-old stepdaughter that is living with us. And she has not been vaccinated since she was three years old. Or in third grade, I should say.

CAVANAUGH: So getting the required shots, why do you feel that there are risks involved in that?

TANKELL: Well, when I was in chiropractor school, I went to hear someone speak. Her name was Barbara Lowe fisher. And told her story about vaccinating her oldest son. And shortly after he was vaccinated, he had convulsions, collapsed, and ended up with brain inflammation. And that was after he got his DPT shot. And he was only two and a half years old and he was left with multiple learning disabilities and ADD. So I had already heard about those risks and it made me very uncomfortable. To me, I wasn't willing to risk my children's health and their mental well being considering I'm a chiropractor, I want to make sure that their nervous system is flowing at 100% and not doing anything from the outside to prevent that.

CAVANAUGH: Now, a lot of people would say, Dana, that you're willing to take the risk of not immunizing your kids, that's one thing. But don't you feel any responsibility to the larger community?

TANKELL: How so?

CAVANAUGH: In the sense that you're unimmunized children may pose a risk to others?

TANKELL: I'm not quite sure how my children could pose a risk to other children if they're not getting vaccinated and the other children are getting vaccinated. If my child ended up with the chicken pox, they should be vaccinated against it so they're not at risk. So I don't understand how it even places any bearing on them.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me ask you, Kevin, what do healthy officials say are the risks posed by unimmunized kids.

CROWE: Some of the folks we talked to said that you need -- the notion of hurt immunity is that you need to have a certain ring of immunity of vaccinated people around. Those who can't be vaccinated or who are too young to be vaccinated, in order to keep a vaccine preventible disease from spreading. So things like pertussis, they would recommend between 85 and 95% of a group of a herd or a group of people be immunized so that no matter what it doesn't spread as quickly as it might through an you know immunized group of people. Even if you're immunized, you're not 100% protected. So if a vaccine is 80% effective, then 20 out of 100 people, even though they have been immunized are not protected by it.

CAVANAUGH: And there are some people who can't get immunized, whose immune systems won't allow it, and babies right?

CROWE: Right. And in California there are also personal -- -- they may have immunodeficiencies or they're going through chemotherapy or something like that. And then there are babies and children who are just too young to be immunized.

CAVANAUGH: Dana, I'm wondering, have you ever actually seen anyone with polio or a bad case of measles?

TANKELL: I actually have had patients that have come in with pertussis. This past year, I also have had patients that have come in with I'm drawing a blank. The flu --

CAVANAUGH: Well, I'm just wondering if maybe you've had any experience or heard about epidemics in the past where diseases ravaged communities of children.

TANKELL: Of course. I mean, the polio was very well documented, the problems of polio in the community.

CAVANAUGH: And so I know that Kevin, one of the experts in your report expressed the notion that many people are refusing immunizations because the immunizations have worked so well, that these disease outbreaks are now so rare.

CROWE: Right. And what they said, and this was doctor Pauloffet who's in Philadelphia, and what he said was that vaccines are victims of their own success, really, in that they've eliminated diseases, dangerous diseases, to a degree that people don't necessarily fear them anymore. And so now maybe parents, what they're weighing whether or not they're going to immunize their children, they've got fears of the vaccine versus fears of the disease. And if they don't see the disease, then it's hard to balance those two out.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, doctor Tankell, have you -- is the linkage that was made in the new debunked study between autism and vaccinations, has that influenced your theory about immunizations at all?

TANKELL: Absolutely not. I've had patients that have come in and told me their stories about their child after their children was vaccinated, and I see the kids that are autistic, and I see the changes in their body after they get the vaccination compared to before the vaccination. And if the vaccinations were so safe, then they wouldn't have over $2 billion awarded by federal governments to kids and adults that were injured we by them. And that's -- they say that two out of three are denied of the injuries. So that means that $2 billion have been handed out to people for vaccine injuries, and that's only the ones that they're willing to admit.

CAVANAUGH: There is a new requirement for middle and high school students to be vaccinated against whooping cough, and we do have a caller on the line to talk about that. Edo is calling us from City Heights. What can you tell us about this new immunization and what you're working with in City Heights?

EDO: Well, are the immunization requirement that's in issue with us -- we're advocates of residents of City Heights to improve the community, and I personally am a cochair. And we want free vaccination at mobile clinics on campus. And as a last resort, if we can't get that, we will do the waiver option.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So your concern is that you want people to have access to vaccinations and not have to pay for them.

EDO: Yes, exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, I'm glad we were able to get you on, Edo. Thank you for that. I want to sort of wrap this up 'cause we are out of time, Kevin. Are healthy officials concerned about the trend that you document in this report?

CROWE: Well, yes, they are. And especially considering that California, I think, is still having an epidemic of whooping cough, pertussis is still a problem. And nobody's died this year. But last year, ten babies died. And that was -- there are a lot of reasons that a lot of things that cause pertussis. But they were saying officials would say that people who aren't immunized, and that's children and adults as well, who aren't up-to-date on their boosters have helped spread the disease. And officials are especially worried about cluttering in small communities where maybe 10, 15, 20, 25% of the people who are children aren't immunized. Diseases can spread fairly quickly.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let our listeners know that we do have a link to your -- the map that goes along with your report. And they can see the percentage of personal waivers, personal belief waivers for the students in each of the schools in San Diego County. I've got to go. I'd like to thank my guest, reporter Kevin Crowe, and chiropractor doctor Dana Tankell.

TANKELL: Thank you.

CROWE: Thank you Maureen.


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