Officials: Don't delay back-to-school shots

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story should have stated that Illinois law does not allow parents the right to refuse vaccines for philosophical or personal reasons.

The countdown is on for a back-to-school ritual that perhaps is more important than buying school supplies - the rush to get children vaccinated before classes start.

State and local health departments, and school districts urge parents not to delay this task, lest they put their children and other students at risk for serious and potentially life-threatening diseases. August is National Immunization Awareness Month.

Immunizations have eradicated several serious diseases, such as smallpox, polio, and diphtheria in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instances of other serious diseases, such as measles and rubella, have dropped by more than 99 percent since the pre-vaccination era.

Child care facilities, preschool programs and schools primarily are prone to outbreaks of infectious diseases.

In 2015, a measles outbreak at a Palatine day care resulted in 13 cases. Twelve of those involved infants too young to be vaccinated. Statewide cases of mumps and measles declined from 2015 to 2016, but cases of chickenpox and pertussis, or whooping cough, increased during that period.

Whooping cough saw the biggest jump from 718 cases in 2015 to 1,034 in 2016, according to the state health department. Officials say such spikes and dips can be cyclical and cannot be attributed to a single cause.

"Nationwide, there have been upticks of diseases like mumps," said Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. "In some instances, those are in older children who have been vaccinated. Nationwide, the increase in whooping cough has been tied to increasing rates of non-vaccinations."

Kane County saw a jump in mumps cases this year - 19 compared to six last year - largely due to outbreaks at Barrington and Jacobs high schools. In some cases, the students had been vaccinated but still contracted the illness.

"It is possible to get illnesses, even if you are vaccinated. The point is that the symptoms will probably be less severe, last a shorter period of time," said Tom Schlueter, Kane County Health Department spokesman. "No vaccine is perfect. It's not a silver bullet ... (like) you will never get sick. (Still) the best option is ... to get the vaccine to protect yourself and those around you."

For school entrance, students must show proof of diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, haemophilus influenza type b, hepatitis b, and varicella, plus pneumococcal and meningococcal (depending on age) vaccinations.

Some suburban school districts - Elgin Area School District U-46 and Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 - are taking a tougher stance by not allowing students to start classes if they don't have their vaccinations by the first day of school. Their policy is more stringent than state law, which requires students to provide proof of health examinations or completed immunizations by Oct. 15 or an earlier date determined by the school district.

"We have few (students) that qualify for the exemptions," District 300 Superintendent Fred Heid said.

By law, parents still have the right to refuse vaccines for medical and religious reasons.

"I'm not doing anything illegal or even irresponsible," said Kristen Rice, 33, of Elgin, who has children starting first and fourth grades Wednesday.

Rice opposes vaccines for religious reasons. She hasn't been vaccinated and attended suburban public schools without any serious illnesses, though she did contract whooping cough.

Rice doesn't believe she is putting others at risk by not vaccinating her children. "The kids that are vaccinated, they get the diseases anyway, so why would I even risk that," she said.

The state health department has a tool kit for community health workers and health care providers encouraging them to talk with parents about the importance of vaccinations.

For information about immunization requirements, visit The federally funded Vaccines for Children program provides free vaccines to eligible children without access to vaccines.

Call (312) 746-6050 in Chicago or (217) 785-1455.

State and local health departments, and school districts are urging parents to get their children vaccinated before students return to school starting next week. Associated Press
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