Traverse City News and Events

Anti-Vaccine Trend Worrying Local Health Officials

Sept. 15, 2014

Are Grand Traverse area residents vulnerable to a disease outbreak? Some local health officials say yes, as fewer and fewer residents are opting for vaccinations. 

Dr. Michael Collins, medical director for the Grand Traverse County Health Department, says fears of a link between vaccines and autism have contributed to rising vaccination waiver rates across the country. The fears were driven by an infamous 1998 paper in The Lancet medical journal that was later debunked after its lead author, Andrew Wakefield, was found guilty of manipulating research and stripped of his medical license.

From 2008 to 2014, local waiver rates – or the percentage of those declining to get vaccinated for medical, religious or “other” reasons – have risen from 6 to 11 percent in Grand Traverse County, 12 to 19 percent in Leelanau County and 3 to 5 percent in Benzie County. Grand Traverse ranks 74th out of 84 Michigan counties for immunizations; Leelanau ranks 82nd.

“A strong majority (of residents) still think vaccinations are a good idea, but there is a substantial minority concerned about the autism myth, or about the number of vaccinations that are recommended for children,” says Collins. “There's also a lack of understanding that diseases like whooping cough and measles are still out there, and still pose a legitimate risk.”

A community forum tonight (Monday) aims to address just such a concern. “Deciphering the Facts and Myths about Childhood Immunizations: An Informational Community Forum” at Milliken Auditorium will feature Dr. Bradley Goodwin of West Front Primary Care, infectious disease specialist Dr. Christopher Ledtke of Munson Medical Center and pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Schell. The free event, presented by Tri County Medical Society Alliance from 6:30-8pm, will cover common vaccination questions and concerns and will also have an open Q&A.

Michigan Department of Community Health records show that waiver rates are particularly high locally among Montessori students versus public and private school students. While the overall waiver rate for Grand Traverse County schools was 10 percent during the February 2014 reporting period, that rate climbed to 18 percent at The Greenspire School, 23 percent at The Children's House and 24 percent at TCAPS Montessori Elementary.

Collins says it's important for communities to be aware of locations with higher pockets of unvaccinated individuals, as the chance of a disease outbreak is significantly higher and “there will always be people who are at risk” of exposure. 

Should the region's slide in immunization rates continue, Collins predicts the likelihood of a measles or whooping cough outbreak as “fifty-fifty” in the next five years.

“It's already happened elsewhere in Michigan,” says Collins. “It's the idea of herd immunity...if you have a vaccination rate over 90 percent, it's very difficult to have an outbreak, but if the percentage is below that, the risk becomes greater.” Getting vaccinated at the time of an outbreak is often “too late,” Collins adds, as many immunizations require at least six weeks to take effect – though it'd “still be better (getting vaccinated then) than not doing it at all.”

GT County Health Department Outreach Coordinator and Public Information Officer Rose Ann Davis says a complete schedule of recommended vaccines is available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Her organization – as well as several others in the community – also provide financial assistance for those who can't afford vaccinations, including an annual flu shot.

Above all, Davis says those with concerns about immunizations should seek the counsel of a medical professional. “There seems to be a lot of propaganda and inaccurate information out there that people are taking to heart,” she says.

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