About 1,000 Kentucky public school students are exempt from required vaccinations, but as kids across the state are heading back to school, health officials are touting the benefits of the protection offered by immunizations.
The roughly 600 students claiming a religious exemption and 400 claiming a medical exemption represent less than 1 percent of students enrolled in Kentucky public schools, said Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, the state's epidemiologist. That indicates, he said, that most people have taken to heart the message that immunizations are an important tool in preventing disease like measles and whooping cough.
But over the last few years, some health officials have expressed concern over the media attention being given to celebrities and concerned parents warning that vaccines are linked to autism.
Many young parents have only been exposed to the alleged dangers of vaccines, said Sandy Breeding, the nurse team leader at the public health clinic operated by the Lexington Fayette County Health Department.
And because of that, those young parents have real fears about the vaccines, Breeding said. At the same time, those same parents don't fear the preventable diseases like mumps and measles because they don't have any first-hand experience with them, she added.
"There are younger people who have not had to deal with or experience living with those childhood illnesses," she said.
Those diseases are "not out there anymore" in a way they were even a generation ago, she said, and "they (some young parents) have never seen the consequences."
Ironically, she said, today's parents haven't had to deal with those illnesses largely because their spread has been limited by vaccines.
Unfortunately, some of those diseases, measles for example, are making a comeback, said Kevin Hall, health department spokesman. While there have not been any recent measles outbreaks in Kentucky, as of late July measles have been found in five of the seven states that border Kentucky, Hall said.
There have also been outbreaks of whooping cough, more formally called pertussis, in Kentucky in each of the last three years, he said. Whooping cough is also preventable with a vaccine.
The vaccinations are important not only to the students they protect, but also to other people, like pregnant women or people with compromised immune systems, who could become ill if they come in contact with someone who is infected.
Parents reluctant to vaccinate their child often consent when presented with information about the safety of vaccines, Breeding said. She always talks about their safety to parents served by the clinic, she said.
"They are educated about the benefits of vaccines whether they want to hear it or not," she said.