The town of Prescott is known for is climate, scenery, town square and Whiskey Row. But the area is also earning a name in the health community for something else. Its schools are seeing more and more children showing up for class without their shots.
"Parents have options now," said Prescott Schools Superintendent Dave Smucker.
The percentage of unvaccinated elementary students here is double the state average. "Some of those parents are making decisions to waive those shots and if they choose not to, then those students are welcome in our schools," said Smucker.
Public health researchers are discovering large pockets of unvaccinated families across the state.
"I can't say that I'll never vaccinate my children.. but at this point I just don't feel that need," said Wayne Sarver, who is one of a group of parents that spoke to CBS 5 News at Indian School Park.
"We're well-educated. I think everyone here is an ex-teacher," said Danica Norris, who also opposes vaccinations.
"I feel like injecting viruses in my healthy children might compromise their immune system," said Kelly Dinon.
But health experts say groups like these are putting the state and its children in danger.
"These families.. they need to be aware that not only are they not protecting their children.. they're doing a huge disservice to our community," said Dr. A.D. Jacobson, who is the chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Phoenix Children's Hospital.
He said as the number of unvaccinated children rises in a community, the immunity to diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough drops. In order for a community to shield itself effectively, 90 to 95 percent of its children need to have their shots.
"You know before we had the whooping cough vaccine, we had 20-thousand kids that died from whooping cough each year in the United States and we had 20-thousand that had brain damage," said Jacobson.
Whooping cough is one of the diseases that's already making a comeback.
"I remember what his body felt like on my chest," said Natalie Norton." And now all those memories have been unfortunately replaced by longing and a whole lot of pain that I would not wish on anyone."
In the debate over vaccinations, Natalie and Richie Norton are living statistics. On January 7th 2010, their 10-week old son, Gavin, died from a disease that was supposed to be ancient history.
"Our son was too young to be vaccinated. It wasn't that we opted not to vaccinate him.. and then he contracted pertussis. He would have received that vaccine at his next well baby check," said Norton.
"My baby suffered because of other people who hadn't vaccinated. Our son died of whooping cough.. which passed from one person to another person and then down to our baby," said Richie Norton.
CBS 5 investigates sent public records requests to 60-Arizona school districts, asking two questions. How many K through 12 students do you have? And how many of them have their shots? 46 districts responded, with exemption rates ranging from half a percent in the Osborn School District to more than 23-percent in Camp Verde.
In the valley, Avondale has 89 students with exemptions. Glendale has 74. Madison has 172. Mesa has 2,302.
But the most surprising result is that the districts with the largest percentages of unvaccinated children are not what you would call underprivileged. They are located in affluent areas, like Scottsdale, Deer Valley, Fountain Hills, Gilbert and Prescott.
In Arizona, the law says parents don't need any medical or religious reason to avoid vaccinating their children. They simply sign a form.
"You just sign a form and turn it into the school," said Elizabeth Jacobs from the University of Arizona College of Public Health. She and fellow researcher Kasey Ernst are finishing a study that looks at why parents are opting out.
"Is it weighted more on emotion? Is it weighted more on actual science? What is going into that decision-making process?," asked Ernst.
Reasons include fear of side-effects, an autism study whose author admits was fake, and a mistaken belief that childhood diseases are a thing of the past.
"What we suspect is that it has become somewhat trendy in certain circles not to vaccinate. I think it is a dangerous trend," said Jacobs.
A growing number of voices are calling for state leaders to change the law, requiring parents to at least speak to their doctor before saying no to vaccines. But the trend may be difficult to reverse.
CBS 5 Investigates intern Paige Gruner compiled the data and contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 KPHO. All rights reserved.
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