When it comes to preventing diseases in schools, medical experts say vaccination is the way to go.
But falling numbers in vaccinated children could cause serious problems for schools and their communities, according to experts.
Across 23 school districts in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, 229 kindergarteners are not vaccinated, according to recent data obtained by News Channel 11. That’s less than one percent of the student population sample, but experts say the number of unvaccinated kids has been rising over the past 10 years.
If that number keeps rising, medical experts say there is a big cause for concern.
“If you get less than 90 percent vaccination amongst your children then you’re at a higher risk of seeing an outbreak of measles in your community,” said Dr. Karen Shelton, Director for Mount Rogers Health District.
Only one school district dips below the 90 percent threshold – Lee County’s vaccination rate sits at 89.8 percent, the lowest in the region, according to data reported to the Virginia Health Department last fall.
The same data notes that 16 percent of students at Flatwoods Elementary School are not fully immunized, possibly contributing to the county’s low vaccination rates.
Washington County, Virginia’s Rhea Valley Elementary had 26 percent of students with incomplete vaccination records, the lowest for any school in southwest Virginia for data collected last fall.
Tennessee rates for the 2017-18 school year showed that Bristol, Tenn. schools had the lowest vaccination rates at about 92 percent – 20 of the district’s 258 kindergarteners weren’t fully immunized for the school year.
All other districts in northeast Tennessee maintained vaccination rates above 96 percent for the 2017-18 school year.
(Article continues after charts)
Yellow = lowest vaccination rate.
Green = highest vaccination rate.
Blue = state data.
|Northeast Tennessee Kindergarten Vaccination Rate Data 2017-18|
|School system||Total Students||Fully Immunized||Not Immunized||Religious Exempt.||Medical Exempt.||Temporary Certificate||Other|
|Bristol, Tenn.||258||238 (92.2%)||20 (8.8%)||7 (2.7%)||1 (0.4%)||9 (3.5%)||3 (1.2%)|
|Carter County||362||349 (96.4%)||13 (3.6%)||5 (1.4%)||5 (1.4%)||0 (0%)||0 (0%)|
|1 (0.6%)||1 (0.6%)||1 (0.1%)||0 (0%)||0 (0%)|
|Greeneville||192||447 (98.2%)||6 (3.1 %)||1 (0.5%)||1 (0.5%)||0 (0%)||3 (1.5%)|
|Greene County||455||454 (97.6%)||8 (1.8%)||6 (1.3%)||6 (1.3%)||2 (0.4%)||0 (0%)|
|Hawkins County||465||454 (97.6%)||11 (2.4%)||1 (0.2%)||1 (0.2%)||1 (0.2%)||0 (0%)|
|Johnson City||647||631 (97.5%)||16 (2.5%)||6 (0.9%)||0 (0%)||10 (1.5%)||0 (0%)|
|Johnson County||128||126 (98.4%)||2 (1.6%)||1 (0.8%)||1 (0.8%)||1 (0.8%)||0 (0%)|
|Kingsport||546||526 (96.3%)||20 (3.7%)||10 (1.8%)||0 (0%)||9 (1.6%)||1 (0.2%)|
|Rogersville||72||70 (97.2%)||2 (2.8%)||2 (2.8%)||0 (0%)||0 (0%)||0 (0%)|
|Sullivan County||634||666 (96%)||28 (4%)||6 (0.9%)||2 (0.3%)||13 (1.9%)||7 (1%)|
|Unicoi County||166||163 (98.2%)||3 (1.8%)||0 (0%)||1 (0.6%)||2 (1.2%)||0 (0%)|
|Washington County, Tenn.||589||579 (98.3%)||10 (1.7%)||3 (0.5%)||1 (0.1%)||4 (0.7%)||2 (0.3%)|
|Southwest Virginia Kindergarten Vaccination Rates Fall 2018|
|School System||Total Students||Overall Coverage Rate||Public School Coverage Rate||Private School Coverage Rate||Religious Exempt.||Medical Exempt.||Total Unvac. Students|
|State of Virginia||N/A||96.1%||96.3%||93.3%||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Bristol City, Va.||194||92.8%||93.7%||88.6%||4||0||14|
|Washington County, Va.||356||93.4%||93.9%||78.6%||2||3||25|
The anti-vaccination viewpoint
Summer Boutwell, a mother from Bristol, Tenn., is choosing not to vaccinate her two-year-old son Gabriel.
She said it was difficult for her to find a pediatrician that would respect her decision, and that her concerns surrounding vaccination spring from health issues she believes are related to the vaccines she got when she was a child.
“All these toxic ingredients concerned me as a mother,” Boutwell said.
According to a poll by Pew Research Center, one in ten adults, about 9 percent of people polled, think vaccines like the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine are not safe for healthy children.
The same poll reported that vaccine skeptics cite a variety of concerns, ranging from the effectiveness of vaccination to a distrust of pharmaceutical companies to concerns that vaccines cause autism or other disorders.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there is no link between vaccines and autism, but some children may have negative reactions to vaccination – the MMR vaccine can cause side effects like fever, a mild rash, temporary pain and stiffness in the joints and, rarely, febrile seizures.
Jamie Swift, a registered nurse and corporate director for infection prevention at Ballad Health, said there are rare, serious side effects that sometimes come with vaccines, but she said the best option for hesitant parents is to talk to their doctor.
“We know that with any medical procedure you go through there’s risk, but the benefit outweighs the risk,” Swift said.
The CDC says it continuously monitors vaccinations for safety in addition to sending new vaccinations through a six-stage development process before new vaccinations are sent for approval.
The history of measles in the U.S.
According to the CDC, measles became a “nationally notifiable” disease at the turn of the 20th century – an average of 6,000 measles-related deaths was reported each year.
That number continued to grow to the middle of the century, with an estimated 3 to 4 million people contracting the virus each year. The CDC reports that each year, about 400 to 500 of those people died, 48,000 people were hospitalized and 1,000 suffered swelling of the brain caused by measles.
The first measles vaccine was released in 1963, and thanks to vaccinations, Shelton said the disease was almost eradicated in the United States by 2000.
In the course of about 40 years, measles went from an expected childhood affliction to an almost unheard-of disease sealed in the past – which Swift said could be part of the problem.
“We have an entire generation that truly have not seen these diseases,” Swift said. “What people don’t see is all the people who didn’t survive in the decades that we did not have vaccine.”
Measles is incredibly contagious – the CDC says the illness causes a fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes and a sore throat and is spread through coughing and sneezing.
While it won’t prove fatal for many who contract the disease, measles may cause some children to develop pneumonia, life-long brain damage or deafness from the virus, the CDC says.
Effects of not vaccinating
The Associated Press reported last month that the U.S. counted more measles cases in the first two months of this year than in all of 2017.
The CDC confirmed 314 cases of measles in 15 states from Jan. 1 to March 21 with six outbreaks (defined as three or more cases) reported in jurisdictions from New York City to Washington.
That’s more than twice the number of reported cases in 2017, according to the CDC.
“I have never in my career seen the number of measles outbreaks that we’re seeing in the United States,“ Swift said. “Truly we are one plane rise away from an outbreak happening in any community.”
Shelton said the best thing vaccine-hesitant parents can do is talk to their doctors about their concerns surrounding vaccinations.
“I think bringing these concerns forward is a good opportunity for conversation,” she said.
Boutwell said that in the future, she would like to see more in-depth discussions about vaccinations – the alternatives, the risks and the benefits.
“That’s true informed consent,” she said.