Though data for this school year have yet to be collected, those from last year show only 3,955 students in kindergarten applied for religious exemptions from vaccine requirements and that 169 sought medical exemptions, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. That would equate to about 2.9 percent of students enrolled in kindergarten.
The department also looks at students in sixth grade, in which 3,087 had religious exemptions and 102 had medical exemptions – about 2.2 percent.
“For the past couple of years, the numbers have seemed to remain constant,” said LaTonya Thomas, the assessment manager for the department. “But we’ve seen a very, very, very small increase
in the religious exemptions.”
The Richmond County Board of Education sees few exemptions, said Dr. Carol Rountree, the executive director for student service.
“Some years, we have none,” she said. “It’s not a tremendously major issue with us.”
Vaccines came under scrutiny years ago when a now-discredited report in England connected a major childhood vaccine with autism.
Some vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and pertussis have increased in the past couple of months in Georgia, with outbreaks in metro Atlanta, but that might not be from the lack of vaccination for pertussis, said Ben Sloat, the special populations manager for the public health department.
“One of the interesting things that we’ve seen from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) data is that many of the pertussis cases have occurred in individuals who were fully vaccinated,” he said. “That makes us think that it is not necessarily an exemption problem but it may be that there needs to be further research done on current pertussis vaccines to make them more effective.”
People older than 11 are recommended to get a pertussis booster shot, but it is not required. The department will begin to look at adolescent vaccination rates this year to see whether there are pockets where those vaccines are not being given, Sloat said.
“We certainly feel like adolescents and adults need to get all of their routine recommended vaccines, not only pertussis,” he said. “But we’d like to see if we can identify areas of the state with under-vaccinated adolescent populations.”