An Action News Jax investigation is revealing how many unvaccinated children are enrolled in local schools.
In Florida, parents are legally allowed to opt their children out of required immunizations for religious or medical reasons.
That's despite overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines prevent outbreaks. Medical experts repeatedly advise that benefits or protection far outweigh the risks from vaccines.
Action News Jax spoke to St. Johns County parent Javonna Peng. She said she made the decision not to immunize her 3-month-old baby. Her five other children have had vaccines in the past but she's decided to forego any future immunizations for them.
"It's a personal choice," she told us. "As long as we have that right to do that, we are going to exercise that right."
She says it was her Christian faith that helped her make the decision, along with conversations with her chiropractor.
Action News Jax requested information from local health departments that show how many children have been opted out of immunizations by their parents. Of 114,265 students enrolled in Duval County Public Schools, 992 opted out. That's less than one percent, or .86 percent. It was a much higher percent in St. Johns County. Of the 37,726 children enrolled, 806 opted out. That's more than two percent, or 2.13 percent.
We were able to break down the data even further, determining which schools had the largest percentages of unvaccinated students. In DCPS, J. Allen Axson Elementary had 32 of its 603 students opt out. That's more than 5 percent of the student body. In SJCS, R.B. Hunt Elementary had more than 8 percent of its students opt out. That's 51 of its 612 students. You can see the complete breakdown of both school districts below.
Action News Jax spoke with Doctor Pauline Rolle, Medical Director with the Florida Department of Health Duval County. She stressed the danger of opting out.
"There is an inherent risk in choosing not to vaccinate," Rolle said. "Time is ticking. You put your child at risk and potentially exposed other folks to diseases that are deadly. Meningitis, folks die from that. In some cases it doesn't take long."
She says unvaccinated people endanger the community by harming something called herd immunity. When a critical portion of a community is immunized against a contagious disease, most members of the community are protected against that disease because there is little opportunity for an outbreak. Even those who are not eligible for certain vaccines get some protection because the spread of contagious disease is contained. Those people include infants who are too young for vaccines, pregnant women, or immunocompromised individuals like cancer patients.
This exact scenario happened last year at Disneyland in California. A person infected with measles visited the park. That disease, which has been largely eliminated in the United States, traveled to Utah, Oregon, Arizona, Washington state and Mexico.
One of the biggest claims against vaccines has been that they cause autism. Peng is one of many parents that say they rely on information they read online.
"All of a sudden they get this shot that they supposedly needed and then within days they've had these horrible reactions," Peng told us.
The medical community has repeatedly debunked claims that vaccines cause autism. The original author of one study that supposedly found vaccines cause autism lost his medical license after failing to follow proper procedures, disclose conflicts of interest, and other ethical violations. In the years that followed, several other major medical studies were conducted and no link to autism was ever found.
That doesn't mean side effects aren't possible from vaccines. The most common include a sore arm at the injection site or a low-grade fever.
"What people must remember is everybody responds differently to the vaccine. We all mount different level of immune responses," Rolle said. "You take a chance anytime you take any medication. Over the counter medications are no less dangerous, but yet we take them."
Rolle admits physicians could do a better job addressing misinformation online, communicating to parents why vaccines have proven to be safe.
"Anytime we choose not be vaccinated we risk getting sick ourselves as well as exposing those that we love," she said.
Action News Jax reached out to the Duval County Public Schools to get their response to our investigation.
Here is the full statement:
"Duval County Public Schools takes school and community health seriously, and we encourage families to adhere to the recommendation to vaccinate students in accordance with Florida Statute 1003.22(4). Vaccinations can help decrease the rates of common childhood and adult diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, diphtheria, influenza, among others, which are highly contagious and are particularly dangerous to very young children who have relatively low resistance to infection. Accordingly, our focus within the past few years has been to work together with the Florida Department of Health Duval County to increase immunization levels in our schools and decrease the presence of vaccine-preventable diseases. These efforts include:
• Collaborating with the FDOHDC to create promotional materials about required immunizations to share with families through our schools, FDOHDC clinics and primary care doctors and hospitals.
• Reviewing student records and contacting families directly by phone to assist them in receiving required immunizations and boosters.
• Training school staff on requirements so they can provide information and support families with questions.
Our current 95 percent compliance rate in traditional public schools can be attributed to these efforts. While the district recognizes the right of the parent to choose to opt out due to religious or medical reasons, we will continue to support the efforts of FDOHDC to improve the immunization rates of our students and provide information and resources to families to assist them in making the right decision for their students based on their unique circumstances."
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