Buncombe vaccination religious exemptions quadruple state average – Asheville Citizen-Times
Upon closer review, it’s clear vaccines are life-saving. Nathan Rousseau Smith
Melanie Bates has three grandchildren who all received vaccination shots as babies. The oldest and middle child sailed through the process with no problems. But with Cami, the youngest, there was a slight reaction with every shot. She would go temporarily cross-eyed.
Doctors and nurses told Bates and her daughter, Nicole Presnell, that Cami’s reaction was normal. But after the family moved to Hickory in Catawba County in 2015, Presnell opted against vaccination shots for Cami for fear they might cause harm.
Similar fears are the driving force for parents who choose to stop vaccinating their children at an early age, or never engage with vaccinations to begin with, said Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, of the Buncombe County Health and Human Services department.
Today, Buncombe County has the state’s highest percentage of nonvaccinated kindergartners, according to a Buncombe Health and Human Services report released in September. The report lists exemption rates by school.
The county recorded 121 kindergartners — 5 percent — as missing one or more of their required immunizations during the 2016-17 school year. That amounts to about four times the state average and most cases involved a claim of religious exemption.
“It is our belief that parents are claiming religious exemptions for what are, in fact, mostly philosophical exemptions,” Mullendore said.
But they have no way to prove it, she added.
Philosophical vaccination exemptions are not accepted under North Carolina law.
At least two schools in Buncombe County, North Buncombe Elementary and Evergreen Community Charter, had kindergarten vaccination exemption rates of more than 20 percent, meaning at least one in five kindergartners in those schools had not received all immunizations required for kindergarten.
Mullendore said the Health and Human Services Department has been in discussion with administrators and parents at those schools to search for solutions.
Stories shared online
Fear is what made Presnell wary of continuing with Cami’s vaccinations. After the family moved to Catawba County when Cami was 2, Presnell went to the doctor to explain the child’s vaccination reactions.
She told the doctor Cami would go cross-eyed after every vaccination and that she did not want to her to get any more shots.
But to her surprise, Presnell was told if she refused to vaccinate her daughter then the doctor would be forced to call child services and report neglect.
“So she vaccinated Cami the next day,” Bates said.
Cami received two shots in her left leg in October 2015.
Twenty-four hours later she could not get out of bed, Bates said.
The following week, Cami started having seizures, she said.
Similar to Cami’s story, there are countless accounts shared online about children and adults who say they have had adverse reactions to vaccination shots, which has opened a fierce debate between medical professionals and concerned parents.
Buncombe has seen a growing number of parents over the past decade who call themselves ‘anti-vaxxers’. Some say they became opposed to vaccinations after spending hours poring over documents online and swapping stories with fellow anti-vaxxers in social media groups.
A matter of the law
North Carolina vaccinations law allows for religious and medical exemptions if a written statement is submitted detailing the bona fide religious beliefs and opposition to the immunization requirements.
But the requirements point out that no child can be exempt due to personal beliefs or philosophies of a parent or guardian not based on a religious belief.
Mullendore and her team said they fear for the day an outbreak of measles or mumps hits WNC, which could be devastating, she said. Every time she hears of one of these cases in North Carolina, she said she holds her breath and hopes it is not in Buncombe County.
But it is only a matter of time, Mullendore noted.
“We are going to have something happen, like an outbreak of a vaccine disease,” said Mullendore, who is the mother of a fully vaccinated 2-year-old. “If we get hit with measles, that is highly contagious and can lead to serious consequences.”
Dr. Susan Mims, of Mission Health, remembers the exact moment she became passionate about educating parents on the importance of vaccinations. It was the day she saw a 1-month-old baby die from whooping cough.
“It was traumatizing,” Mims said.
From Mims’ perspective, the death was preventable. But because the newborn was most likely exposed to a sick, non-vaccinated child in the first few weeks of his life, Mims said the baby was not strong enough to fight the infection.
“Vaccines not only protect the person who gets the vaccine, it protects those around them,” Mims said.
But Cami’s family has a different perspective.
Bates said she watched in terror as Cami was sick for six months after those two vaccinations. In addition to the reoccurring seizures, Bates said Cami slurred her words, occasionally lost the ability to walk and lacked the energy many of her fellow toddler friends had.
But Bates said doctors refused to listen when the family asked if the vaccinations were causing such a strong reaction.
So Bates took to researching for a possible connection.
She came to the conclusion that Cami had suffered what she called a vaccination injury, which is defined as someone having a type of allergic reaction or side effect because of a vaccination, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states.
Bates took comfort in the fact she wasn’t the only person who watched helplessly as her grandchild suffered through all of these ailments with no apparent cure. She connected with people on Facebook and started sharing Cami’s story.
Bates said a new doctor discovered Cami had a double mutation that made her react strongly to vaccinations.
“It had to do with the amount of aluminum in the Hepatitis B shot,” Bates said.
The doctor recommended Cami get an MRI, but Bates said she was worried that any type of sedation could cause further harm. The doctors also suggested that Presnell put Cami on a cocktail of drugs to help reduce the seizures.
“But the pills they wanted her to take had side effects that were worse than the actual seizures,” Bates said.
They did not fill the prescriptions and they stopped going to all of Cami’s doctor appointments.
They turned instead to natural remedies instead, including use of frankincense and other essential oils.
Cami’s seizures have stopped since.
She plays just as tirelessly as her fellow 4-year old friends, Bates said.
“She runs and jumps and has amazing strength,” Bates said.
The family has not visited a doctor since early 2016, six months after Cami’s initial vaccination shots.
Paul Brazil said vaccination injuries are very real. As a lawyer, he works with families and adults who have suffered vaccination reactions to get them compensation.
“I don’t understand how people can have a blanket denial that vaccination injuries don’t exist,” Brazil said. “Many people are quick to call it a conspiracy but at the national level, the Health and Human Services Department tells us there are injuries that you can get from vaccines.”
The National Vaccine Injury Compensation program, under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was created in 1980 so parents and adults could file petitions if they felt they received an injury due to a vaccination.
Brazil and his Pennsylvania-based firm, My Vaccine Lawyers, have close to 700 vaccination injury cases from across the country. He has worked with a handful of clients from North Carolina, a few from WNC.
Most cases he sees involve shoulder injuries, which are commonly mistaken as tendinitis. But when clients come to him with paperwork dictating neurological damage, it starts to get tricky, Brazil said, because they are harder to prove a connection to the vaccination.
Mullendore said she has rarely, if ever, heard a story about a vaccination injury. She said it is easy for people to correlate a certain pain or reaction to a vaccine shot shortly after receiving it.
But decades of overwhelming medical research on vaccines has never shaken her belief that they work, she said.
“I rely on the science and large studies of hundreds of thousands of people over time and I read about what it was like without vaccines,” Mullendore said. “There are some countries today that still don’t have access.”
Mims agreed and said a lot of information people are reading is not scientifically based.
She also believes that it is easy for parents to get swept up in blaming vaccines for their child’s sickness or weird reactions post-vaccination.
“In their early years, when they are getting vaccinated, that is also the time that many other clinical conditions are becoming known to children for the first time,” Mims said.
There is always a coincidence of timing, Mims said, like when people feel they always get sick after getting the flu shot. When in reality, flu shots are always administered during flu season when many people are already being exposed to various colds and types of flu.
Mims and Mullendore recognize that parents want to do what is right for their kids. But they are both concerned with the alarming amounts of misinformation online that is shared among parents through social media and the effect that is having on the high exemption rates in WNC.
Like the unproven belief that vaccines cause autism, Mims said.
Mullendore has become familiar over the years with Asheville parents’ inclinations to go natural when it comes to feeding and medically treating their kids, but the upward trend of nonvaccinated children is a danger, Mullendore said.
“What is unique to our area has more to do with a lot of people who are living naturally and they seek answers outside of western medicine,” Mullendore said. “There may be a dialogue that getting chicken pox naturally is better, where we say the science doesn’t support that.”
Mullendore hopes that with more access to information on the internet comes more awareness that not everything is accurate.
“There is no internet editor and no one who goes through and deletes things that are untrue,” Mullendore said. “You can find anything to support your beliefs on the internet.”
Looking ahead, Mims said she is excited about the future of vaccines. She has been seeing a lot of growth and experimentation for future cancer cures and said she knows more lives will continue to be saved because of vaccinations.
“It is an amazing phenomenon and they are the most impressive inventions of all time,” Mims said.
Buncombe County School report for 2016-17 school year: schools with the highest vaccination exemption numbers
-Estes Elementary reported seven students with religious exemptions and four students with an incomplete/missing immunization record
-Fairview Elementary reported one religious exemption and 13 students with an incomplete/missing immunization record
-Weaverville Primary reported six students with religious exemptions and three students with an incomplete/missing immunization record
-North Buncombe Elementary reported three students with religious exemptions and 23 students with an incomplete/missing immunization record
-Evergreen Community Charter School reported 12 students with religious exemptions and four students with an incomplete/missing immunization record
-ArtSpace Charter School reported five students with religious exemptions and six students with an incomplete/missing immunization record
-Azalea Mountain School reported 12 students with religious exemptions and two students with an incomplete/missing immunization record
-Claxton, Hall Fletcher, Isaac Dickson and Vance elementary schools of Asheville City Schools reported 19 students with an incomplete/missing immunization record