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Despite Warnings From Health Officials, Some Wisconsin Families Choose Not to Immunize

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Across the country, certain diseases appear to be making a comeback after vaccines had largely halted them. For instance, in California and other west coast states, there’s a measles outbreak linked to an infected person at Disneyland. Here in Wisconsin, there’s whooping cough. Some parents choose not to vaccinate their children despite warnings from doctors.

For some parents, the question of whether to vaccinate their children against infections like whooping cough and measles and even the flu is a difficult one.

“I think the biggest issue is it comes down to as with any drug or medical procedure risk versus benefit,” Meagan Kerkhoff says. She runs a Facebook page and a website called Wisconsin against the Flu Shot. Kerkhoff says her family focuses on hand washing, healthy eating and dietary supplements to ward off infections like the flu.

“I don’t think there’s any vaccines out there right now, with where I live that the benefits outweigh the risks," Kerkhoff says. "Now if something like polio for example, that’s one disease that it is more serious. You know measles isn’t serious disease. Polio, yeah. If there were polio outbreaks in Wisconsin I would consider getting my child the polio vaccine."

“For some reason, and I don’t understand this, parents are able to separate our recommendations for vaccines from our recommendations for everything else," Margaret Hennessy says. She is a pediatrician with Wheaton Franciscan.

"I know I have families who will come in…I trust you, oh I feel better talking to you, I’ve got to know your opinion on this, and yet when I say the vaccine, there not so sure," she says.

Hennessy says it can be incredibly difficult for doctors to deal with families who decide against vaccinations.

“The first thing you need to do is figure out why. Is it a financial concern? Is there some type of concern that may have nothing to do with the vaccine? I think you can’t always assume that they’re listening to some celebrity on the internet and that’s why. I think you need to figure out why. And then I think you have to just basically try to build a relationship,” Hennessy says.

Hennessy says while some doctor’s turn away families who won’t vaccinate their children, most people are immunized. In Milwaukee, the rate is 89 percent of K-12 students, according to Paul Biedrzycki. He’s director of Disease Control for the Milwaukee Health Department. 

“We’d like to see that rate a little higher. In fact, we’d like to see it above 95 percent, which is the optimal immunization rate to suppress or squelch outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases,” Biedrzycki says.

Biedrzycki says Milwaukee’s immunization rates are similar to other urban areas, while suburbs tend to fair a bit better. Wisconsin law requires all students to be immunized, but families can seek waivers. He says around two percent ask to be exempt.

“We try and make an argument that vaccination is not only good for the individual, but good for the population at large. It protects the individual and the community at large and really reduces lost work days for parents that have to take off from work to take care of sick children,” Biedrzycki says.

And Biedrzycki says despite what some people believe, measles can be serious.

“There’s always a risk of pneumonia, deafness, or encephalitis, which is the inflammation of the brain. Those are very serious conditions that unfortunately result in deaths of children each year,” Biedrzycki says.

If families decide against vaccinations and filling out a waiver, students can be suspended from school for 10 days.

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