Debra Barnes, holding Samuel, 3, and husband Curtis home-school Beau, 7, and Victoria, 9, because of vaccination requirements. Debra Barnes, holding Samuel, 3, and husband Curtis home-school Beau, 7, and Victoria, 9, because of vaccination requirements.

By Vickie D. King, The Clarion-Ledger
Parents home-school to avoid vaccinating their kids
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JACKSON, Miss. — Debra Barnes has a thriving chiropractic practice, a nice home and a family who loves living in the South, but she said she would leave Mississippi in a heartbeat if health officials tried to force her home-schooled children to be immunized.

Barnes is part of a network of parents whose decision to home-school their children rests on their belief that mandated vaccinations for public and private schoolchildren are a dangerous overreach by state governments.

While the mainstream scientific community maintains that childhood vaccines are safe, Barnes relies on the work of some scientists who argue that immunizations can bring on autism or weaken the natural immunities of children.

"If you want to vaccinate your children, go ahead. But don't force me to vaccinate my children. These children are entrusted to us," she says.

Some public health officials are concerned that the growing popularity of home schooling has created gaps in the vaccination safety net, leading to outbreaks of rare childhood diseases.

In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported measles cases had spiked; 131 cases were reported nationwide for the first seven months of the year, compared with an average of 63 cases per year since 2000.

Of the infected, 91% were unvaccinated, most because of "philosophical or religious beliefs," the CDC said.

Home-schooled children accounted for 25 out of 30 cases in an outbreak of measles in suburban Chicago in May, according to the CDC. In Grant County in Washington, public health officials tied 11 of 19 measles cases to unvaccinated home-schooled children.

Lance Rodewald, director of the CDC's Immunization Services Division, says the measles outbreaks show a problem with state policies allowing home-schooled children to escape vaccines.

"One of the contributors we are seeing has to do with exemption laws," he says. "Somebody who has taken an exemption from school laws, like a philosophical or religious exemption, is 35 times more likely to get measles … and 22 times more likely to get whooping cough."

Barnes, who is president of the Jackson chapter of the Mississippi Vaccination Information Center, says she wants Mississippi to change the law that allows no exemptions beyond medical necessity. She and her husband, Curtis, home-school their 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, and when the times comes, they will home-school their 3-year-old son.

"When I came to Mississippi, I had no idea there would be a place in the 21st century that would have a mandated vaccination schedule," she says. "I happen to believe that you shouldn't inject things into your blood."

Some fear that by allowing parents more choice, pockets of unvaccinated children will be created, spawning more outbreaks.

Last year, Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania ethicist, co-authored an article in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics advising states to get more serious about requiring the vaccination of home-schooled students or risk new outbreaks of formerly rare diseases such as measles or polio.

The article has been passed around among home-school advocates as evidence of a conspiracy to force mandatory vaccinations.

Caplan says it is not just the children who are put at risk. Vaccines work by providing "herd immunity," meaning large numbers of vaccinated individuals protect a small minority of the unvaccinated. That dynamic breaks down if increasing numbers of people are not vaccinated.

"Unvaccinated children pose not only a risk to themselves, but to their families, other children they come in contact with and especially older people they might visit or encounter in a movie theater or mall," he says.

The Department of Education estimated in 2003 that more than 1 million children were home-schooled, and home-schooling groups such as the National Home Education Research Institute say the number has grown to around 2 million.

"The vast majority of parents know that vaccination is the best way to protect their children," Rodewald says. "Certainly, the vaccination is much, much, much safer than the disease itself."

Tracking outbreaks down to the neighborhood level shows a high correlation between the disease and families who have filed exemptions to escape vaccinations, Rodewald says.

Barnes says the parents in her group are not buying it. "There is so much out there that they scare us with and belittle the parents with that is so unnecessary. If the science was there and the safety was there, they wouldn't have a problem with the numbers (of vaccinations)."

Joyner reports for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson.

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