4 Investigates: NM's most unvaccinated schools identified

Posted at: 11/14/2013 10:25 PM
Updated at: 01/26/2015 7:21 PM
By: Ryan Luby, KOB Eyewitness News 4

Schools are notorious for serving as breeding grounds for everyday illnesses, but now doctors are concerned that they’ll allow highly-preventable and dangerous diseases to spread quickly.

On Thursday, for instance, the New Mexico Department of Health confirmed 470 cases of whooping cough across the state so far in 2013.

At La Cueva High School in Albuquerque, the disease has sickened 32 students so far this school year.

Wednesday night, state doctors tried to stop the spread of it by administering 94 Tdap vaccinations to La Cueva students and parents.

4 Investigates learned that between 1999 and 2011, the number of vaccine exemptions granted by the department – for personal religious reasons – more than doubled.

In a recent survey of 729 families granted exemptions in 2011, the department learned that 55-percent of them obtained the exemption for philosophical reasons not religious reasons.

4 Investigates also submitted a public records request to the Department of Health last month to determine which New Mexico schools have the most unvaccinated students, but learned the state does not keep a readily-accessible database on schools.

So far, the department has produced records for a total of 251 schools in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, and Los Alamos.

To see the lists, click here.

Although the most recent data is from last school year, it identified three schools that stand out as having the greatest number of students with personal religious vaccine exemptions on file:

--Santa Fe Waldorf School in Santa Fe: 51-percent of 205 students

--Taos Waldorf School in Taos: 46-percent of 55 students

--Mountain Mahogany Community School in Albuquerque: 18-percent of 205 students

At Mountain Mahogany, staff said they’ve recently discussed vaccines with parents.

“I am grateful parents still have choice,” Kendra Toth, the school’s vision director said.

She said the school has required parents seeking vaccine exemptions to apply directly through the Department of Health.

Vera Clyne, the mother of a third-grader at the school, had her daughter exempted years ago after consulting with a family doctor.  She said her daughter was born prematurely.

“So, there was a lot of concern about the immune system that she had, and that might be compromised in certain ways,” Clyne said.

Doctor John Good at ABQ Health Partners in Rio Rancho said he does not accept patients who wish to forego childhood vaccinations.

“Vaccines save lives,” he said.

Dr. Good agrees with the CDC that schools should strive to have a student body that’s 85 to 90-percent vaccinated.

He said the greater concentration of unvaccinated students, the greater the risk.

“You start getting more and more of these people together, and then these diseases aren't just isolated, but then they can take off,” Dr. Good said.

In August, a largely unvaccinated church community in Texas experienced a measles outbreak that sickened more than 20 people.

Although some of the diseases aren’t harmful to some, Dr. Good said they could kill others.

“In very small children, that's when they're the most vulnerable, from zero to two months.  They're too young to get vaccinations because they don't respond to the vaccinations,” he said.

While at Dr. Good’s office, 4 On Your Side met Elizabeth Gingerich who brought her two-month-old daughter, Daenerys, in for a first round of shots.

“I mean it's important for health, it's important for her development,” Gingerich said.

Initially, she said she considered foregoing vaccines, but quickly learned how risky it could be for her daughter.

While supporters of vaccines may criticize parents like Vera Clyne at Mountain Mahogany, Clyne said she supports vaccines too – just not all of them for her daughter.

She also said she keeps her daughter home for an extended period whenever the girl gets sick.

“And I would hope that other people who opt out [of vaccines] are also aware of the public implications,” Clyne said.

Parents who wish to apply for vaccines exemptions – for medical or religious reasons – must seek approval directly from the state.