A growing number of children in the state aren't getting vaccinated against what are often-considered childhood diseases, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
State law requires children to receive vaccines for diseases such as measles, mumps and polio by the time they reach certain ages or before they start school. Parents can file for exemptions with the Health Department and cite medical, religious or philosophical objections.
The number of exemptions statewide increased about 25 percent in the past five years, from 6,397 exemptions to 8,016, according to Health Department data. The data include students who attend public and private schools, said department spokesman Meg Mirivel.
About 2 percent of the more than 8,000 exemptions in Arkansas for the 2018-19 school year were for medical reasons, the Health Department reports. About 32 percent were for religious reasons, while 66 percent were for philosophical reasons.
Dr. Joe Thompson of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement said outbreaks of measles and other diseases in the U.S are taking root in communities where people are choosing not to get their kids vaccinated.
Last week, New York City declared a public health emergency because of a measles outbreak and has ordered mandatory vaccinations in one neighborhood.
"Measles is one of the most contagious diseases that we know of. If one person has measles, 90 percent of people who they come into contact with who are not vaccinated will probably get it," said Thompson, a former Arkansas surgeon general.
The last case of measles confirmed in Arkansas was in January 2018, Mirivel said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children receive doses of the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella, when they are 12-15 months old and when they are 4-6 years old, according to the center's website.
Thompson explained that when 95 percent of a community is vaccinated against a disease, doctors call that "herd immunity," which means the risk of a disease outbreak getting out of control is relatively low.
The state is falling short of that threshold. The vaccination coverage rate for children entering kindergarten in Arkansas during the 2017-18 school year was 91.9 percent, according to the CDC.
In 2016, Northwest Arkansas had an outbreak of mumps, with at least 150 cases confirmed or suspected in Springdale and Rogers.
Two cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, were confirmed this month at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville. The school notified all parents of the first diagnosis and sent a letter to parents of about 30 students who were in close proximity to the first diagnosed student, who was unvaccinated, and the parents of seven students exempt from getting vaccinated.
The letter notified them that their children would have a few days to get on antibiotics or be banned from school and school activities for three weeks. The school also sent another letter notifying parents of the second diagnosis stating that the school nurse would review immunization records to decide whether any students would need an additional dose of the pertussis vaccine.
One of the most serious risks associated with whooping cough is when infants are exposed to it, because they are more likely to develop apnea and stop breathing, Thompson said.
And, there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism, Thompson said, yet that myth persists. He said he thinks it's because parents start seeing signs of autism in their children about the same age as when the children receive vaccinations.
Parents who do not vaccinate their kids for non-medical reasons often do not understand the risks, he said.
In Northwest Arkansas, the Bentonville School District has the most exemptions, 441, of any of the four largest districts in Benton and Washington counties. Fayetteville follows with 311. Rogers has 233 and Springdale has 159, according to the Health Department.
The number of students day-care age through college age in Benton County who had vaccine exemptions has increased by 27 percent since the 2014-15 school year when 1,225 students had exemptions. That number has reached 1,557 students this school year, according to the Health Department.
In Washington County, vaccine exemptions increased by 23.5 percent from five years ago when 862 students had exemptions. This school year, 1,065 students had exemptions.
"A pretty limited set of kids" cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons, such as being on chemotherapy, Thompson said.
Springdale is the only one of the four largest school districts in Benton and Washington counties that has had a decline in the number of exemptions despite a growing student population, according to the Health Department.
Springdale had 228 students exempt from vaccines in the 2014-15 school year and has 159 students exempt for the 2018-19 school year, according to the Health Department.
PARENT VOICES CONCERN
Eva Charles of Bentonville described herself as an "ex-vaxxer." She said her children received some vaccinations but not all that are recommended. She stopped the protocol when she started questioning the vaccinations' contents and effects.
Charles said she suspects vaccines containing aluminum caused her son to develop eczema. He began showing signs of eczema weeks after he was vaccinated as a baby, she said.
She added that she doesn't fear measles and she believes that forcing people not fully vaccinated to stay home is government overreach. "My concern is the government trying to mandate a medical procedure."
Charles also said she has a moral objection to vaccines because she believes they contain cells from aborted fetuses. However, Dr. Gary Wheeler, chief medical officer at the Health Department, said "there have been no new fetal aborted cells collected since the 1960s."
Some vaccines contain a compound called alum, and some people do experience allergic reactions to vaccines, he said, but "the risk of that is phenomenally low."
Wheeler, 65, said he grew up seeing people disabled and suffer the aftereffects of diseases that are largely preventable with vaccines. He highly recommends that parents vaccinate their children. "The consequences are too severe," he said.
Complications from measles can range from ear infections and hearing loss to brain swelling, pneumonia and even death, the CDC website says. Children under age 5 and adults older than 20 are more likely to suffer complications from the disease. For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it, the website says.
Wheeler said the Health Department administers about half of the vaccinations in the state.
At the department's health units in each county, no one is turned away if he cannot pay, Mirivel said.