Illinois reevaluates religious vaccine exemption as school measles protection fades

ABC7 I-Team Data Investigation
CHICAGO (WLS) -- An I-Team investigation uncovered an increasing number of Illinois schools falling below the measles vaccine coverage level the World Health Organization says is needed to keep children safe.

As the country is on the verge of losing the "measles-free" status that it's held for nearly two decades, the I-Team dug into local vaccination data behind the return of measles, a surprising resurgence of a disease many thought had been eradicated. The latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 1,241 individual cases of measles in the United States so far in 2019, the most since 1992.

Investigative teams at ABC Owned Television Stations across the country analyzed local measles vaccination rates and found schools in communities nationwide that are below what's considered the community or "herd immunity" rate. According to the WHO, 93-95% of people in a population need to be vaccinated against measles to make sure the rest of a population is safe from the highly contagious disease. Both the WHO and the Illinois Department of Public Health target a mid-90% vaccination rate, aiming for 95% measles protection to maintain herd immunity.

I-Team data analysis found 514 schools across Illinois where less than 95% of children are vaccinated for measles, potentially putting the school at risk. It's a number that's increasing, up from 439 schools in 2016 and 455 in 2017. Some Chicago Public Schools across the city are below the 95% threshold, from Manierre Elementary School (90%) on the North Side to South Loop Elementary (91.06%), to Spencer Technology Academy on the city's west side. Just less than 85% (84.84%) of students there have their measles vaccines. A CPS spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Schools are slipping below 95% in the suburbs as well. Williard (91.72%), Harriet Gifford (94.75%) and Century Oaks Elementary (94.8%) schools in the Elgin area are all below the safety target. A U-46 spokesperson says new 2019-20 data shows Harriet Gifford at 93.33% Willard at 97% and Century Oaks now at 98%.

In Forest Park, Garfield (91.98%) and Grant-White (94.85%) Elementary Schools and the middle school are below the recommended safety threshold. The vaccination rate is just below the target at 94.9% at Highlands Elementary in Naperville. Spokespeople for those schools did not comment for this report.

State data shows a measles vaccination 92.9% at Carol Stream Elementary School. A CCSD93 spokesperson said after following-up with students listed as not in compliance in the data submitted last year to the Illinois State Board of Education, 97.7% of Carol Stream Elementary School students were up to date on measles vaccines.

"Even if other schools are at 100%, that doesn't help your school if your school is at 85 or 92%," Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike told the I-Team.

She said that while the state's overall measles protection rate averages to 98%, they're trying to boost problematic individual school vaccination rates. Ezike said social media is amplifying anti-vaccination voices and that by spreading false information online that vaccines are dangerous, social media posts can put more children at risk.

"I think the biggest danger is the misinformation that is out there," Dr. Ezike said.

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Low herd immunity rate is "life and death" for River Forest family

Three of Sonia Green's sons have a genetic condition called XLA, which means their immune systems basically have no memory. In order to keep them safe from serious diseases like measles the Green family relies on community immunity, also known as herd immunity, as well as special treatments.

"Our goal is to keep our boys living normal lives. We want them attending public school," said Green. "There are very very real people whose lives are impacted day to day, hour to hour by what's happening with these dropping vaccine rates."

The Green family attends Oak Park and River Forest High School where last year's IDPH data shows that measles vaccinations dipped to 94.95%, just below the herd immunity threshold. Green is keeping an eye on local school immunity protection rates.

"I think the data is super important, I just want to know what the numbers say," she said.

A spokesperson for Oak Park and River Forest High School said their vaccine compliance percentage goes up as the school year progresses as they submit more complete data to state officials. They also told the I-Team that they "continue to EXCEED [WHO] guidelines year after year, and are proud of that fact. We're confident that Oak Park and River Forest High School is doing everything possible to prevent the spread of measles in our community."

IDPH examining religious vaccine exemptions as I-Team investigates increase
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The ABC7 I-Team dug into the data on Illinois' measles vaccinations, and how the Illinois Department of Public Health is examinig religious exemptions.

The I-Team also found a trend in Illinois' measles vaccine data. The single largest increase in why vaccination rates are dropping is an increase in parents claiming a religious exemption from vaccines. Last year, 2003 more children were unvaccinated than the previous school year. The vast majority of that increase - 73.6% -- was due to an increase in religious exemptions.

"We're looking at all options, whether legislation might be necessary again looking at other states where they have repealed religious exemption as a method to avoid vaccination," said Dr. Ezike.

"We know that there are no major religions that have tenets in their religion that say that vaccines are forbidden," said Dr. Anita Chandra, Spokesperson for American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP is pushing public health authorities both here in Illinois and nationwide to ban non-medical exemptions for vaccines like religious exemptions. Dr. Chandra is part of a committee that just started meeting in Illinois that's working "to figure out how to make medical exemptions more rigorous and to remove religious exemptions from the state of Illinois."

"When we have a very effective and very safe vaccine it makes no sense to have anybody risk their life by contracting measles," Dr. Chandra says.

This I-Team investigation is part of a joint data investigation with the ABC Owned Television Stations in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, San Francisco, Raleigh and Fresno.

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