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Health Department: Area tops state for child immunization

Tracy Filipi prepares to give her son Adrian some graham crackers after he received his 15-month shots during a checkup Wednesday afternoon at Sanford Bemidji Clinic. Also receiving the same shots was Adrian's twin brother, Dallas, who was comforted by his father, Ben. Pioneer Photo/Bethany Wesley

Minnesota has the third-highest rate for vaccination exemptions for school-aged children.

That doesn't surprise local physicians.

Dr. David Erickson, a pediatrician, with Sanford Bemidji, said there is a national trend toward opting out of the recommended vaccination schedule.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that 6.5 percent of Minnesota kindergarteners are admitted to school on exemptions, meaning they do not have all of the vaccinations required for attendance. Alaska had the highest percentage at 9 percent, followed by Colorado with 7.

In Beltrami County, 62.1 percent of children aged 24-35 months have met the recommended schedule of vaccinations; 93.1 percent have received at least two of the recommended vaccinations, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Both figures are higher than state averages of 58.1 percent and 90.8 percent, respectively.

Vaccinations protect not only the person who receives them, but those who are unable to be vaccinated, Erickson said.

A newborn baby cannot be vaccinated, so his parents and siblings need to have the flu vaccination to prevent it from spreading to the infant.

A child that does not get the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine but goes to school could have the measles and not immediately know it, he said. That student could infect a classmate who has had a kidney transplant and is unable to be immunized.

"We need to get away from the focus of what's in it for me," Erickson said.

One of the problems facing vaccination supporters is that the immunizations have done their job, Erickson said. The public has not seen diphtheria and measles in force.

"They're so good that no one has memories of how awful it was before vaccinations," he said. "Vaccinations save more lives than anything else we've done."

Anti-vaccination beliefs go back to the 1700s. Erickson said the first known objector was Benjamin Franklin, who refused the smallpox vaccine for his son. His son died of smallpox in 1736.

"I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation," Franklin wrote in his autobiography.

There generally are two groups of people who are not following the recommended schedule, Erickson said.

The group he believes is more prevalent in this area is composed of parents who are more lax about attending well-child visits.

Their children's lack of updated vaccinations is due more to social issues like forgetting about the appointment, not getting time off from work or a broken down car, Erickson said.

The other group are those who refuse vaccinations or would prefer an alternative schedule to that recommended.

The anti-vaccination group tends to be white, middle-class families with parents who attended some college, Erickson said. They tend to cluster in areas, he said. For instance, entire extended families might refuse vaccinations, perhaps for a religious reason or because they support alternative medicines. Some say they do not believe in science.

"It's very hard to break down some of those barriers," Erickson said.

Breaking down those barriers, he said, comes down to trust. Physicians have a better chance of talking through issues when the patients and their families return to the same doctor over and over again.

"Trust is a big issue," he said.

Erickson, who vaccinated his children, readily acknowledges vaccinations have risks, but he equates them to car seats, seat belts and airbags.

"Have people been injured before by airbags? Of course they have. But have airbags saved lives? Of course they have," he said.

But whereas an accident survivor can retell the story of how the seat belt saved her life, no one who can recall how a vaccination saved his life.

Children who are vaccinated on schedule have about two dozen shots by the time they are 2.

Erickson said the alternative vaccination schedules, which advocate for fewer, more spread out vaccinations, also pose additional risks.

Children need the vaccinations when they are young because that is when they are most vulnerable, he said. It would be like driving on slippery, curved road without a car seat and then using when on a flat, dry road.