A new law freeing foster parents from vaccination duties collides with conventional wisdom on preventable diseases.
Sedona is asking for it,
according to Will Humble, director of Arizona’s Department of Health Services. One area school has a child vaccination rate of only 50 percent. “One of these days, a measles outbreak is going to rifle through that community, and I hope nobody dies,” Humble says.
Yet surprisingly, he supported SB 1108, which eases vaccination requirements. The new measure, signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer in May, allows families to apply for foster parent licenses even if they haven’t vaccinated their own children.
The law addresses one need at the expense of another. Arizona’s foster care system needs help: With more than 14,000 children in the system, only about 2,000 have been placed in homes. On the other hand, the law could give parents – many fearful over alleged links to autism and severe allergies – approval to opt out of child vaccination.
Humble’s support for the law is rooted in his belief that the state’s Department of Economic Security (DES) – not foster
parents – is responsible for getting foster children vaccinated: “If you’ve got a fully-vaccinated foster kid... it shouldn’t matter where they go.” However, Humble adds that children age 2 and younger – who have yet to get their recommended schedule of shots for German measles, influenza and other diseases – might be at risk from unvaccinated housemates. Thus, Brewer’s signing letter orders DES to place foster infants and very young children in fully vaccinated homes.
Democratic Senator Debbie McCune Davis, who opposed the bill, says foster parents share responsibility with DES for vaccination. She worries vax-resisting parents won’t keep fosters’ shots up to date.
Nobody knows how many foster homes SB 1108 opens up. “Dozens,” ventures Arizona Senator Nancy Barto, who sponsored the bill with State Representative and fellow Republican Debbie Lesko. Both say they vaccinated their own children. “I’m an advocate for immunization,” Lesko adds.
The same could not be said for two Arizonans who lobbied for the bill after they were turned away as foster parents. Mother of two Gina Apilado, of Surprise, stopped all child vaccinations when her firstborn suffered an allergic reaction. Susann Van Tienderen of El Mirage says her children received some vaccines, but not every shot mandated by the state. “If I’m not 100 percent comfortable with something, I’m not going to put it into my child,” she says.
Arizona permits parents to refuse child vaccination for medical, religious, or philosophical reasons. About 3.4 percent of Arizona kindergartners were opted out in 2011-2012, twice the rate for 2000-2001. The national refusal rate is just under 2 percent. Dr. Arturo Gonzalez of the American Academy of Pediatrics says Arizona needs a 92 percent vaccination rate to prevent an outbreak; today’s rate is 76 percent.
Most scientists say vaccine fears are unfounded. Dr. Frank DeStefano, head of the Immunization Safety Office for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in Atlanta, says the chance of a child suffering serious vaccine side effects is one in 1 million. Conversely, the U.S. saw 41,880 cases of whooping cough last year, the most since a vaccine became available in the 1950s. DeStefano says lower vaccination rates contribute to whooping cough outbreaks.
About 300,000 Americans with weak immune systems can’t get vaccinated and may face lethal outcomes from exposure to non-vaccinated persons.
Humble thinks many parents who opt out don’t know the risks. He wants opt-out forms to enumerate possible outcomes – including weeks of missed school in the event of an outbreak. Gonzalez hopes vaccine-fearing parents talk to their family doctors. “We pediatricians have children of our own,” he says, adding that if he didn’t believe vaccines were safe and effective, he wouldn’t vaccinate his own children. “It’s as simple as that.”
Arizona’s 3 percent vaccination opt-out rate for kindergartners in 2009-2010 was above the national average of 1.9 percent, but well below a handful of exemption-friendly states.
Washington - 6.2
Vermont - 5.8
Oregon - 5.4
Michigan - 4.4
Illinois - 4.3
Arizona - 3.0