Are vaccines now contagious?

Two years ago, when the state of Maryland was moving to vaccinate all schoolchildren against a highly contagious bacterial illness that led to an unprecedented outbreak in Howard County, some parents resisted. State health…

Are vaccines now contagious?

Two years ago, when the state of Maryland was moving to vaccinate all schoolchildren against a highly contagious bacterial illness that led to an unprecedented outbreak in Howard County, some parents resisted. State health officials encouraged them to fill out a form affirming that their child is definitely getting the vaccine, then return to school.

Last school year, Maryland’s health department encouraged parents to complete a form affirming that their child is getting the vaccine, then immediately return to school. The number of children refusing the vaccine plummeted from 42 percent to 19 percent, and the disease did not spread.

“Since we changed the method in the middle of the outbreak, our numbers have been going up, instead of going down,” Howard County Health Officer Kellie Bozeman says.

The results of Maryland’s experiment should be reassuring to parents, officials say, but it raises an unsettling question: If more states take this tactic, will other illnesses become more contagious?

The changes in Maryland are not just limited to schools. Other states have adopted the “return to school” policy, sometimes referred to as the vaccine recall process. Maryland’s alternative involves a voluntary notification of school employees to those children whose parents did not return the form.

“So far, there haven’t been any schools that we’ve had any problems with,” says Anne Marie Howard, a health officer for Montgomery County in Maryland. “In no way am I saying that every school should take this approach. But if this is a good approach, I think we need to give it a try.”

Immunization experts point out that vaccine recalls, in the past, have been linked to a large increase in community illness, such as whooping cough. As any sick child grows in size, they might spread to other classmates.

But Anne Wyckoff, a spokeswoman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says she has not heard of any such outbreaks tied to the vaccine recall policy. Wyckoff says the CDC encourages states to have a comprehensive plan to prevent epidemics and is monitoring the approach as other states consider it.

These moves, more than one vaccine recall, are partly driven by a clash of philosophies.

“We often hear that ‘we like vaccinations’ and ‘we don’t want to hurt kids,’ ” says Malcolm L. Baynes, an assistant professor of public health at Florida International University in Miami. “But people often don’t understand the risks of certain vaccines.”

To see the difference, look at the list of 19 different types of vaccines. Most of them cost as little as $10, making them easy to skip. If every parent thinks their child has this one, they’re never going to get it.

The CDC discourages parents from using medical exemptions. But an estimated 5 percent of American children have not been immunized for some reason. And parents who believe vaccines can cause autism, or other serious side effects, are using the medical exemption to avoid the vaccine recall.

The trouble with these alternatives is that the illnesses may spread. Sometimes, a child could lose consciousness during the school day and drop out without getting sick.

For example, a new measles outbreak at the University of California at Los Angeles confirmed on Tuesday that two students who are receiving medical exemptions for not getting measles vaccinations — the parents of two children who were infectious during the school year — may have re-infected 10 students who were unvaccinated.

However, CDC officials emphasize that, generally, a child can never get vaccinated before he or she contracts an illness. And there is some reason to believe that kids who have not gotten vaccinated are less likely to be exposed to the disease.

“One of the big myths about vaccinations is that if someone gets measles from somebody who’s vaccinated, they’re contagious throughout the whole school,” says Dale McDaniel, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Public Health.

McDaniel says Georgia has no plans to change its policy. Until the federal government provides the funding to eradicate all the common childhood diseases, he adds, “there’s no point in changing any policy.”

Now that the federal government has released a report that suggests seven diseases can be wiped out, Michigan may be getting on board. The state’s Public Health Department is discussing whether to change its policy for HPV vaccines.

“Virginia would not,” says Angela M. Hall, director of the health and human services department’s immunization program. “We continue to recommend that parents get the HPV vaccine, but we have not introduced the method for compliance.”

This article was written by Sara Ganim, Molly Hennessy

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