The number of parents who decide not to have their children vaccinated has crept up over the years in Santa Barbara County. Though the percentage of kindergarteners who are fully vaccinated teeters just above the threshold required for “herd immunity” to be effective, pockets throughout the area have higher exemption rates, which could be problematic as an epidemic of whooping cough pervades California.

In the entire county, the percent of kindergarteners who are not immunized for “personal belief” reasons has risen from 2.9 percent in 2011 to 4.7 percent in 2013. Notably, 27.4 percent of students at Montecito Union School waived the shots last year, according to state records. Private schools tend to have fewer children vaccinated, such as El Montecito School, where 41.7 percent of students filed exemptions.

California mandates children be vaccinated at the child-care, kindergarten, and 7th-grade level for a number of infectious diseases including pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis B, and others, but parents can opt out for religious or personal-belief reasons. New state law effective in January requires parents to receive information about such diseases and the benefits and risks of vaccinations.

An epidemic of whooping cough is currently occurring in the county. There have been 81 cases of whooping cough so far this year compared to 28 cases in the same time frame last year, according to Adriana Almaguer, the immunization program administrator for Public Health. Cases across the state have also tripled, and there are now close to 8,000 cases. An uptick of whooping cough occurs every two to five years, Almaguer said. It’s possible for someone to be diagnosed with the disease even if he or she has been immunized.

At Washington, Monroe, and Roosevelt elementary schools, about 16 percent of the students opted out for personal reasons last school year. Conversely, at McKinley, Harding, and Franklin elementary schools, between zero and 2 percent of kindergarteners opted out.

For years, fears that vaccines caused autism deterred parents from immunizing their children. Though experts say that theory has been disproved, school officials say the belief persists. A number of people don’t believe immunizations should be regulated, said Liz Christen, head nurse of Santa Barbara Unified School District. “I don’t publicize that there is an opt out,” she added, “but there’s always one person in the group that knows about it.”


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