New Jersey 101.5 video

If you send a child to school in New Jersey, they are required to receive several vaccinations. But there are medical and religious exemptions.

Over the past six years, while the number of school children not getting vaccinated for medical reasons has dropped, the percentage of kids skipping vaccinations for religious reasons has more than doubled.

In part this may be because getting a religious exemption is a fairly simple process in New Jersey, and groups that are in opposition to vaccines have been more organized and vocal in recent years.

Vaccine exemptions for school children in NJ     Religious     Medical
2009-2010 school year                                        3,865         1,011
2010-2011                                                           6,214         2,070
2011-2012                                                           6,843         2,013
2012-2013                                                           8,076         1,899
2013-2014                                                           8,977         1,592
2014-2015                                                           9,115         1,502
2015-2016                                                           9,506         1,313

State health officials, however, say that just 1.9 percent of children last year received religious exemptions and than 95 percent of children were vaccinated.

But the significant rise in religious vaccination exemptions in New Jersey has caught the attention of the medical community, and many doctors find the trend alarming.

“It’s a huge concern, and people seem to be forgetting just a couple of generations ago, in the 1950s and before, all these childhood diseases were potentially fatal or causes of great amount of disease,” said Dr. Ted Louie, an infectious disease expert with the Medical Society of New Jersey, affiliated with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Saint Peter’s University Hospital and Highland Park Medical.

“People forget the polio caused people to have respiratory failure and go on ventilators. Polio caused paralysis, measles caused death and encephalitis, which is infection of the central nervous system. A lot of childhood birth defects were from these childhood viruses.”

Louie noted the increasing number of school children not getting vaccinated could threaten what’s known as herd immunity.

“If you have a community, you have to have a certain critical mass of people immunized before the immunization is truly highly effective, so usually that’s well over 90 percent,” he said.

I you don’t have this critical mass, “you start seeing more and more cases, for example, of measles. If you go below that critical mass, more people will be prone to these diseases.”

“If the kids are not immunized there’s going to be more and more measles, mumps, rubella, other childhood illnesses floating around and everybody will actually be at higher risk.”

Dr. Meg Fisher, past president of the New Jersey Academy of Pediatrics, also finds the trend concerning.

“We would prefer that every child be immunized because it’s best for the child and best for their communities,” she said.

“Most of the diseases for which there are vaccines are very serious diseases. We don’t have vaccines against things like the common cold. Measles — we know that within the world, one child dies every 20 minutes of measles.”

Louie says children may also receive a medical vaccine exemption, but this is rare.

“Some kids with bad immune systems, where their immune system doesn’t function normally, would be advised to avoid certain live vaccines, but not all vaccines.

Dawn Thomas, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department, says the state is trying to help families who are uninsured or underinsured get access to vaccines. The department provides 1.6 million doses of vaccines every year at no cost to 800,000 children.

"The department and its partners in the healthcare community and in local and public health promote the importance of vaccination and educate the public about the importance of vaccination in preventing childhood diseases and about the safety of vaccines," she said. "The department strives to provide the public with fact-based, credible resources to dispel any myths about vaccination and counter any unbalanced portrayal of vaccination."

Contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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