GREENFIELD — There are 158 students in Hancock County public schools who are not vaccinated against diseases such as measles and whooping cough.
The figure represents just 1.3 percent of the entire 12,433 student population, but even a small number of children who are not vaccinated are a cause for concern, said Allison Catron, public health nurse for the Hancock County Health Department.
“There’s always concern when somebody’s not vaccinated. It certainly is a possibility what happened in California could happen here,” Catron said, referring to last month’s measles outbreak that was traced back to Disneyland. “Is it a possibility? Yes. Is it a concern? Yes.”
With some diseases hitting close to home — chicken pox and whooping cough recently were reported in Carmel schools — area school nurses say they’re as prepared as they can be for any kind of outbreak.
The state of Indiana requires all students who attend a public school to be vaccinated, but medical and religious exemptions also are granted.
Of the 158 files of local school children exempt of vaccines, 83 percent — or 131 — have religious exemptions.
Exemption rates among the school districts were similar, with each falling between 1.1 and 1.4 percent.
Dawn Hanson, Greenfield-Central corporation nurse, said if an outbreak of any disease were to happen, families would be notified, and nonimmunized children would be required to stay at home for an undetermined period of time until the health issue was resolved.
If parents are worried, they haven’t expressed it to Hanson. She said she received no phone calls from nervous parents last month when more than 100 people fell ill to the measles.
Vaccine exemptions are confidential, but medical staffs at schools are prepared to take action to protect students, she said.
“I did devise a plan for what we would do if we had (a measles outbreak) — if we had one case even within the state of Indiana what we would do,” Hanson said. “We’d notify all the families who were not properly vaccinated and let them know a case had been identified in the state, and if it was identified here, we would have to send (their child) home for a period of time.”
Nurses at Hancock County’s other school corporations have similar plans in place.
“If someone has a case of, say, the measles, we just look up anybody who has not been immunized for the measles, either medical or just not caught up,” said Michelle Shaw, Mt. Vernon school corporation nurse. “Then they are excluded from school until it’s safe for them to come back.”
Shaw said while there’s an occasional case of chicken pox in area schools, it doesn’t happen very often.
Families must submit exemption forms every year; medical exemptions generally are for those who have organ transplants, are on chemotherapy or are on medications that suppress their immune system.
The danger of unvaccinated children in schools is unknown. Generally, children who receive vaccines are safe from infections even if a nearby unvaccinated child becomes ill, Hanson said.
Hanson said the World Health Organization recommends communities achieve at least a 90 to 95 percent vaccination rate to keep the entire population healthy against measles. Local schools vaccination rates are higher than 98 percent.
Anti-vaccination parents bring a mix of views to the table, from religious communities to families practicing alternative medicine to libertarians who shun government interference. Herd immunity, or community immunity, is the notion that if the vast majority of people vaccinate their children, unvaccinated children will remain healthy.
Hanson said the medical community’s concern is that as more people choose to not vaccinate their children, herd immunity will drop.
“If it drops … those who are truly unable to vaccinate due to age or health status will be at such great risk for contracting the disease,” Hanson wrote in an email. “Unlike those who opt out due to personal preference, they cannot simply change their mind and decide to get the vaccine.”
Nationwide, parents who seek exemptions from vaccine requirements are still a tiny minority. The median exemption rate for kindergartners during the 2013-14 school year was 1.8 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But some individual schools or communities have higher exemption rates, at times approaching 60 percent or more.
The CDC says years of testing are required before a vaccine is approved, and shots are continually monitored for safety and effectiveness.
Education is a key component of the county’s health department, where Catron said people often come with questions about the blogs they read on immunizations.
A lot of the fear about vaccinations stems from a 1998 medical study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who raised the possibility of a link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism and bowel disease. The study was later discredited and retracted, but Catron said the fear is still there.
Others, she said, simply don’t want government telling their families what to do.
“It is everyone’s right not to (be immunized), but there’s a lot of misinformation causing people not to get their vaccines,” she said, emphasizing the need to research credible sources.
While many vaccines are given to infants, children cannot be vaccinated against the mumps, measles, chicken pox and hepatitis A until they’re at least 1 year old. That’s why Catron said the outbreak of diseases can be especially alarming for parents of newborns. Families should make sure primary caregivers of their infants are updated on vaccines.
While the vast majority of parents who come to the county’s health department have no objection to vaccines, Catron said she walks a fine line with those who have concerns.
“Ultimately, it is their decision,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s hard to know that what they’re believing is not of fact. There’s no scientific basis.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.