Unlike most states that allow parents to opt out of vaccinations for medical or religious reasons, Arizona allows parents with children in schools, preschools, and childcare centers to opt out for personal or philosophical reasons as well. The state requires parents to sign a personal beliefs exemption form acknowledging that they understand the risks of not vaccinating and that unvaccinated children could be excluded from school if an outbreak occurs.
In 2011–2012 school years, 3.4 percent of kindergartners were not vaccinated for at least one vaccine due to personal belief exemptions. In 2000–2001, there was only 1.4 percent in that category. In certain counties the number is much higher. In Yavapai County, 9.2 percent of kindergartners, 9.4 percent of sixth graders, and 11.5 percent of 10th graders had personal beliefs exemptions for the 2011–2012 school year. In Coconino County, 6.2 percent of kindergartners, 11.6 percent of sixth graders, and 4.1 percent of 10th graders had personal belief exemptions. Karen Lewis, medical director for the Immunization Program Office at the Arizona Department of Health Services, stated that clusters of higher exemption rates and lower immunity levels that result put schools and communities at risk.
University of Arizona researchers, including Kacey Ernst, an assistant professor at the College of Public Health, recently released the first part of a study commissioned by the Arizona Department of Health Services on personal beliefs exemptions. They analyzed state data, surveyed parents and doctors, and held town halls. Results showed that schools with higher rates of exemptions tended to have higher presence of white students and lower rates of free and reduced lunch. Charter schools and schools in northern Arizona tended to have higher rates of exemptions. According to Ernst, this meant that the access to vaccines was not the problem, but that parents did not want vaccines for their children. Some parents were concerned about the side effects of vaccines, others worried that children were getting too many vaccines at one time, and some parents favored a natural lifestyle with natural exposure to disease for immunization. Also, many parents who opted out did not believe the risks of disease were severe.
The Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics plans to advocate during the 2013 legislative session for a law requiring parents seeking vaccination exemptions to be counseled by a health professional on the risks. Will Humble, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, worries about the risk of a severe outbreak in areas with high percentages of parents who choose the personal beliefs exemption. He opted to evaluate the results of the university’s study on exemptions before considering next steps, but he noted that the decision to vaccinate affects more than just the child. He is concerned that by not vaccinating, the parent is putting not just their kids at risk, but also the whole community.