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Dr. Matt Zahn
By not considering those issues, though, public health officials say parents can put whole communities at risk. Officials have traced a recent 111-person surge of measles in Ohio to Amish missionaries who brought the disease back from the Philippines, which is now in the throes of a major outbreak. The Amish traditionally have low vaccination rates.
Sears said he wants parents to vaccinate their children, but he’s sympathetic to their concerns. His goal is to offer parents choices, and he’s developed an alternative vaccination schedule that spaces shots further apart — in violation of the guidelines approved by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Sears, too, believes vaccines can cause autism.
“My statement I like to make on vaccines and autism is that vaccines don't cause autism, except when they do," he told “America Tonight.”
He also said parents shouldn’t be overly concerned about measles because “the vast majority of cases pass without any long-term harm.”
The Orange County Health Care Agency’s Zahn is particularly concerned about that line of thinking. He points out that seven of the 22 victims in Orange County ended up in the hospital, and that statistically 1 in 1,000 will die.
“The science is really solid behind the notion that getting vaccinated, at 1 and 4 years of age, with your MMR is the safest, smartest thing to do,” said Zahn. “People are entitled to different opinions. They’re not entitled to different sets of facts.”
Still, a growing number of parents are opting out of required school immunizations. All 50 states require schoolchildren to be vaccinated, with exemptions for medical reasons and, in 48 states, for religious reasons, too. But now 19 states, including California, allow parents to file “philosophical exemptions.”
According to a 2012 Emory University study, vaccination opt-out rates are 2.5 times higher in states with personal belief exemptions compared with states that allow only religious ones. But there's a difference depending on how easy it is to apply. In states where parents simply have to sign a form, rates of nonmedical exemptions are 2.3 times higher than in states where there's another step to the process.
In January, California passed a law requiring that parents get a pediatrician’s signature on an exemption form, indicating that they’ve been informed of the benefits of vaccines. Sears said he’s been signing hundreds.
“They’re very easy to sign,” he said. “I just feel that it does slightly infringe on people’s rights to make medical decisions.”
To combat falling vaccination rates, Orange County has launched educational outreach programs. “America Tonight” visited a preschool in Anaheim, the center of the county’s outbreak, where “school readiness nurses” were explaining to a group of mothers that some parents had decided not to immunize their kids, and there was now an outbreak of measles.
Martha Figueroa, one of the mothers, said she had vaccinated her children and was particularly worried about the measles outbreak because, at the age of 7, she had seen her 2-year-old sister die of the disease.
“It affects me a lot,” she said, “because I remember watching how she suffered.”
Zahn said it’s possible the current outbreak could change some parents’ minds about vaccines, or at least serve as a reminder of the pain these infectious diseases can bring.
“Events like this, of measles, clusters and outbreaks, change minds, change people’s perceptions,” said Zahn. “The beauty and the importance is we have a way to keep yourself and your child safe. Go get vaccinated.”
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