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School's Start Means Vaccine Exemptions For Some

Simone Jackson is spending the first morning of 7th grade at the Salt Lake County Health Department’s immunization clinic.

“After I get this,” she says, “then I’ll be able to go into my school.”

The start of school often means a scramble to get required immunizations. But for many Utah kids it also means exemption from those mandates.

Stormy Hannay is the immunization nurse who’s going to give three of the required shots.

“Okay, so we’re going to do the tetanus on the right. Correct?” she says to Jackson.

Simone groans. “Okay. I changed my mind -- maybe I am afraid of needles.”

“Here we go 1,2,3,” Hannay says. “That’s the tetanus. Good Job.”

“My arm hurts,” Jackson says.

But Jackson faces the prospect of having to come back for one more shot. She could have a second chicken pox vaccination today, but her mother wants to check with her doctor before going ahead. The Utah Health Department says over 38 percent of parents who seek exemptions like this do so so that they can enroll their kids on time. It offers a grace period to deal with situations like Simone’s.

“I want to be sure that’s something that she actually needs,” says Shauna Alexander, Simone’s mother. Alexander is a single, working mother who took time off from her new job to get her daughter enrolled on the first day of school.

“Better safe than sorry,” Alexander adds. “We’re gonna make sure that’s what she actually needs, and then we’re gonna do that if that’s what she actually needs.”

More than one third of parents seek exemptions because they say too many vaccines are given too soon. And almost as many parents say the immunization requirements conflict with their philosophical beliefs. Stormy Hannay says a big part of her job is education.

“Exemptions are a last resort,” Hannay says. “Vaccines are building shields around these children that, for whatever medical reason they have, aren’t able to get the vaccines at the time.”

Utah is 9th among the states for immunization exemptions. State health officials say they use the exemption data they gather from local health departments to shape state policies to help protect the public from preventable diseases.

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