Area schools meet vaccination mark

Ben Zigterman GateHouse Media Illinois

GALESBURG — While at most local schools over 95 percent of students received their required vaccinations, in the 2014–15 school year only 78.8 percent of students at Galesburg Christian School received their measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations.

Galesburg Christian School saw a drop in 2014–15 from 96.6 percent in 2013–14 and 97.4 percent in 2012–13, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. Vaccination data for the 2015–16 school year hasn't been released yet.

At Galesburg Christian School, a handful of families are opposed to vaccinations, Head of School Robert Nutzhorn said.

"I think there's just a handful of families, but just a handful of families makes a big difference in a school of 120," Nutzhorn said. 

Of the 66 students who were required to get the measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations at GCS, 14 did not. Two had religious objections, six didn't for medical reasons and six had doctor's notes indicating a schedule for when they would receive their vaccinations.

While GCS is adamant that students receive vaccinations, Nutzhorn says GCS tries to remain neutral on the issue.

"You either have to have a note stating objection from a doctor or the actual vaccination record. We are adamant about that," Nutzhorn said. "We try to stay neutral. We've had some of our parents try to convince us as an administration to take a stand one way or the other, but we feel the safest for us as a school is to stay neutral on the issue. We have some families that are adamantly for vaccinations and believe you are doing a disservice if you don't get a vaccination."

Some parents incorrectly believe that the measles vaccination causes autism. However, medical experts agree that there isn't a link between the vaccine and autism, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics

Knox County Health Department Director of Health Protection Sam Jarvis recommends getting vaccinated.

"People think that a lot of these diseases have been eliminated and they haven't," Jarvis said. "It's very important that children and adults get vaccinated. It can protect them from life-threatening diseases, such as measles, polio. ..." 

The vaccination issue received national attention in 2015, when over 100 people became infected with measles in California, where some schools had vaccination rates as low as 50 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Illinois Department of Public Health recommends that schools have at least a 90 percent vaccination rate to build up herd immunity and prevent epidemics. 

In 2015, Illinois added a requirement that parents seeking religious exemptions for their child have a form signed by their doctor saying that they were counseled about the benefits of vaccinations and the health risks of not getting vaccinated. The form also lets parents know their student may be taken out of school if there's "a vaccine-preventable disease outbreak."

Thirty-six of 37 schools in the area have a 90 percent vaccination rate for measles, with Galesburg Christian School being the exception.

The next lowest measles vaccination rate was at Avon Elementary School, where 91.4 percent of students were vaccinated in 2014–15. Of the 139 students needing vaccinations, one didn't get vaccinated for medical reasons and 11 didn't have a documented waiver or exemption.

Principal Chad Cox said he wasn't sure why the rate was so low, as he hadn't spoken with any families who have issues with vaccinations.

"We give written and phone notification, and we try to follow all the guidelines," he said. "And that's a controversy around the country ... but I haven't specifically had that brought to my attention."

In Williamsfield, virtually everyone has a measles vaccination, with 298 of 300 students vaccinated in 2014–15. The two students without vaccines had doctor's notes indicating a schedule for when they would receive their vaccinations.

In 2013–14, just one student lacked a measles vaccination, and in 2012–13, everyone was vaccinated.

Superintendent Tim Farquer credits the high vaccination rate to the district's board president, Janet Collopy, who also runs OSF's health clinic in Williamsfield.

"She does a very good job. They communicate things to families as they come in, and she obviously works very closely with the school district," Farquer said. "And she's a veteran, so she know how to not only talk to families, but to alleviate fears and make sure things are affordable."

He also said that in a small town it's harder for someone to fall through the cracks.

Throughout Knox County, the Knox County Health Department sends out reminders to schools and school nurses, Sam Jarvis said. He also encourages parents to check with their doctors and schools to make sure their children have all the required vaccinations.

"We urge every parent to call their doctor to make sure their kids are up to date, and to check with schools," Jarvis said. "One thing we run into is that the word doesn't get out to everyone and people are busy, and immunizations aren't gotten in time."

Ben Zigterman: (309) 343-7181, ext. 255;; @bzigterman;