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Los Alamos schools top NM in vaccine exemptions

SANTA FE, N.M. — The tally is in, and the major New Mexico school district with the largest percentage of students opting out of vaccinations against contagious diseases is not in one of the state’s known hotbeds for crystal gazing, cradle therapy or psychic readings.

Nope, the highest percentage of vaccine exemptions is in New Mexico’s, and one of the world’s, science centers: Los Alamos.

According to a recent report by the state Department of Health, 2.3 percent of students in the Los Alamos Public Schools have exemptions from having to get vaccinations.

That’s a higher percentage than in the public schools of our New Age-friendly and alternative thought capitals of Santa Fe and Taos. The statewide average is less than 1 percent.

The rating for Los Alamos seems demographically in line with the findings of a 2014 survey by the Health Department of 794 vaccine-exemptor parents – 74 percent were Anglo and 67 percent had at least four years of college.

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But one would think Los Alamos would be different. It’s a town founded on science, and the scientific evidence is overwhelming that vaccines don’t cause autism or other developmental disabilities. Many people in Los Alamos don’t just have college degrees – they’re scientists, with lots of degrees. Los Alamos National Laboratory in fact has done some heavy research on infectious disease and development of an HIV vaccine.

“That’s a curiosity to me, as well,” said Los Alamos schools superintendent Gene Schmidt of his district’s relatively high rate of vaccination exemptions among what he called “a pretty scientific and literate community.”

“It does seem more educated people have a variety of opinions,” Schmidt said, although he said he hasn’t personally encountered any anti-vaxer sentiment.

So what’s the deal with higher education levels correlating with vaccine exemptions, which New Mexico allows for medical reasons certified by a physician or for religious beliefs?

“It’s basically people who feel they do know more and question authority more,” said Amy Pisani, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Every Child By Two immunization advocacy group.

“Even if science says it, that doesn’t translate onto your children,” said Anna Pentler, head of the New Mexico Immunization Coalition. “It’s a very emotional issue for a lot of parents.”

The Health Department’s numbers show that, of 3,505 students in Los Alamos public schools for the current academic year, 79 had exemptions. Schmidt said the number of exemptions is still small enough that it shouldn’t be considered “too far out of the norm.”

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Consider these exemption totals from districts with student populations close to the Los Alamos’ enrollment: Aztec, 29 exemptions; Artesia, 26; Lovington, 18; and Grants, 13. Next door to Los Alamos, Española public schools, with 640 more students than Los Alamos, has only seven exemptions.

The Santa Fe Public Schools’ vaccination waiver rate is 2.1 percent, just below the Los Alamos rate, representing 306 exemptions out of 14,652 students. The Taos public schools rate is 2 percent, with 56 waivers among a student population of 2,839.

Private school factor

Pentler makes a good point about the statistics I’ve presented so far – they represent vaccination exemptions in public schools, not for all children in a particular town or city. While Los Alamos has a minimal private school presence, private schools in Santa Fe take in a significant portion of the school population.

“The kids from families with more alternative beliefs may go to private schools with less pressure from other parents or the administration to get vaccinations,” said Pentler. “People want to be with like-minded people.” That does seem to be the case in Santa Fe. As the Journal reported a couple of years ago, 106 of 205 students at Santa Fe’s private Waldorf School had vaccine exemptions in 2012, the last time the state Health Department provided the data for individual schools.

With all public and private schools added together, Santa Fe’s vaccine-exemptors made up 2.4 percent of the enrollment in 2012. Taos was at more than 3 percent (also with a big boost from the local Waldorf School).

Los Alamos schools were at only 1.8 percent that year, with absolutely no private school kids getting vaccine waivers. The L.A. school district has 12 more exemptions this year, with about 180 fewer students now.

Something is going on up on the hill. The Health Department also recently released county-by-county vaccine exemption numbers for all children ages 4 to 18. Again, the race for worst of show is among Los Alamos, Taos and Santa Fe.

Taos County had the highest rate of exemptions, 3.2 percent. But Los Alamos County was just behind at 3.1 percent (along with sparsely populated De Baca county, with only 357 kids in the age group).

In Santa Fe County, the City Different’s density of exemptors is watered down by the Pojoaque area (only one exemption in Pojoaque Valley schools this year!) and the more traditional southern part of the county. Santa Fe County’s exemption rate is still high, at 2.6 percent, but is significantly behind Taos and Los Alamos counties.

Pentler sees a problem in how the vaccine debate is often portrayed, in the interest of “balance” – the science may be “99 to 1” in favor of vaccines but, if an expert scientist is presented against a parent who believes her child was harmed by a vaccine, the parent’s personal story can have more impact, she said.

It still seems like Los Alamos would go with the science.

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