ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — About 59 percent of parents who exempt their children from vaccinations said that acquiring immunity “naturally” by getting an infectious disease is safer for kids than immunizations, a recent state survey found.
The New Mexico Department of Health survey also found that college-educated Anglos make up a sizable majority of New Mexico parents who exempt their children from required vaccinations.
Health officials this year surveyed 729 parents or guardians who exempted at least one child in their households during the 2011-12 school year.
In all, 3,372 New Mexico children ages 19 and younger were exempt from some or all required vaccinations that year on grounds of religious beliefs. That number is up from 1,148 children in 1999.
“There appears to be a sense for many of these parents that vaccination was something artificial, and it was better to get these diseases naturally,” state epidemiologist Mike Landen said. Parents believed “there was less risk involved to the child to get these diseases naturally.”
State law requires New Mexico children to receive vaccinations for a variety of infectious diseases before enrolling in school or day care. Those illnesses include measles, pertussis – also called whooping cough – mumps, hepatitis A and B, rubella, diphtheria, polio and other diseases.
Landen said that vaccinations are a safer alternative to illness, both for children and people in their communities.
“One develops immunity either by getting the disease naturally or by getting vaccinated,” Landen said.
But if a child becomes ill, “they have risked developing complications from the illness, they have risked hospitalization, and in some cases they have risked death,” he said.
“They have also risked giving the disease to family members” and others, he said.
In all, 2,176 New Mexico households exempt at least one child from required vaccinations, the agency reported.
Residents of Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties account for 54 percent of those households. Another 10 percent reside in Taos and Los Alamos counties.
Of parents surveyed, 74 percent are Anglos and 67 percent have at least four years of college.
Twenty-two percent of parents surveyed said they do not believe vaccines are effective in preventing infectious illnesses.
But about 70 percent of parents said they can protect their children’s health without vaccinations.
State law allows parents to exempt their children on medical or religious grounds. Parents exempt children by signing a form that states “my religious beliefs, held either individually or jointly with others, do not permit the administration of vaccine,” state records show.
In the survey, about 55 percent of parents said they sought the exemption for reasons of “philosophical” or “personal belief,” which are not allowed in state law.
Ultimately, the process relies on parents to be truthful that they are exempting a child on the grounds of “religious beliefs,” Landen said.
“The process is based on trusting, that you sign and notarize that form appropriately,” he said.