Schools require vaccinations, but there are loopholes

Thursday, February 14, 2019

With recent outbreaks of the mumps reported in areas of Montana and North Dakota, the topic of vaccinations has been in the forefront of news stories and local conversations.

Mumps is just one of several diseases that most conventional vaccines, like the MMR, are built to protect children from. Students who aren’t vaccinated face a greater risk of contracting the disease, according to Dawson County Health Department officials.

There are 68 unvaccinated children enrolled in schools throughout the county, according to information from the department.

Three confirmed cases of the mumps were reported in the Gallatin County school district this week following an outbreak there in December of 2019.

A Jan. 28 letter sent to middle school parents in Dickinson, N.D., less than 100 miles east of Glendive, noted that an individual with the disease was reported at a school there.

Mumps is a contagious disease caused by a virus. It typically starts with a few days of fever, headache, muscle aches, tiredness and loss of appetite, followed by swollen salivary glands, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Local health department officials encourage immunizations to help prevent the disease.

“Unfortunately, the people who choose not to vaccinate their children have many ideas, that it causes autism, seizures, that it’s made of mercury,” Naomi Wright, the county’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness coordinator, said. “Like any medication you take, there’s a potential for side effects, but these claims simply aren’t true.”

While Montana schools require proof of immunizations at several grade levels, students are not required to be vaccinated to attend school. Parents can seek a medical exemption or request a religious exemption.

Rules around the two exemption factors vary, according to school nurse Clarice Utgaard.

“A medical exemption, once that’s filed, that’s good for the duration for the student’s school career. The religious exemption has to be renewed annually,” she said. “If they don’t renew, they can’t come to school.”

While a breakdown of which exemptions are medical and which are religious among the 68 unvaccinated students in the county was not available, the statistics were available for some schools. The numbers indicated that religious exemptions are far more common than medical exemptions.

Washington Middle School, for example, has eight students with religious exemptions, and two with medical. Lincoln Elementary School has six religious exemptions and only one medical.

Utgaard said she has seen cases of families who have previously chosen not to vaccinate their children change their minds.

“Some families do change,” Utgaard said.

While some parents may believe that unvaccinated children don’t pose a risk to others, they are wrong, according to Wright, who sited a recent measles outbreak in Oregon.

Wright, who lived in Oregon before moving to Montana, said the state has a several religious groups that don’t vaccinate.

She said there is “a lot of ignorance and misinformation,” adding, “They’re reading things off the internet by people who don’t vaccinate and it spreads like wildfire.”

With a large unvaccinated population, diseases like mumps and measles can spread quickly, according to Wright.

“If you had someone who had measles and sat in the waiting room, that bacteria sits on surfaces and in the air for two hours. Anyone who goes through that space can get sick. I don’t think people realize how rampant these things are,” she said.

While many people who are vaccinated stand a chance of fighting off the virus, individuals like newborns and elderly people are at a higher risk, she said..

“The pharmaceutical companies and the CDC have made great strides over the years,” Wright said. “These diseases used to kill millions.”

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