Amid measles outbreaks on the nation’s coasts, it appears a smaller number of Madison public school students are foregoing one or more state-required vaccinations because their parents have ideological or other non-science-based objections to them.
That’s not the case at some Dane County private schools, though, where the rates of children attending classes under “personal conviction” vaccination waivers can be high enough to imperil what’s known as “herd immunity.”
Last year’s 372 cases of measles was the most in the United States since 2014, when 667 were reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreaks — meaning three or more cases of the disease — have been declared this year in Washington and New York states and New York City.
In Washington, the outbreak appears connected to parents who have chosen not to have their children vaccinated — not because their children’s religious faith bars it or because their children are too medically fragile for vaccination, but because the parents have personal qualms about the practice.
In order to protect vulnerable populations who for medical reasons can’t get certain immunizations, and to keep diseases from spreading, generally between 90 percent and 95 percent of a population needs to be immunized.
This “herd immunity can happen at lower percentages when the disease is less contagious,” according to Tracy Saladar, a UW-Madison nursing professor, but that’s not measles, which she called “the most contagious infectious disease.”
State law requires schools to report vaccination rates to the Department of Health Services, and of all the Dane County schools that did so for the last school year, most of those with the highest percentages of students on personal conviction waivers were private religious schools.
The Baptist Utica Christian School in Stoughton had the highest percentage of students on personal conviction waivers, or 45 percent. The pre-K-through-twelfth-grade school currently has 53 students.
By contrast, only 2.0 percent of students in the Madison School District obtained the waivers, down from 2.8 percent in 2013-14.
Utica Principal John Steuerwald wasn’t sure whether his school’s vaccination figure was correct, and didn’t know of any religious beliefs among parents that would make them hostile to vaccines.
But “that’s their decision as parents,” he said, and he wasn’t worried the low vaccination rate among students could make the school susceptible to an outbreak of measles.
Sharon Schmeling, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Religious & Independent Schools, said there’s “nothing in the major denominations ... that are against vaccination,” which is usually seen as a “gift from God.” Utica is not a member of her group, she said.
But low vaccination rates could be the “fruits of independent-minded people” who already show their independence by opting for an alternative to public education for their children, she said.
Doug Butler, principal of Abundant Life Christian School on Madison’s Southeast Side, said that when parents file personal conviction waivers to vaccine requirements with the school, “we don’t press as to why” and it doesn’t keep them from allowing their children in the school.
There’s nothing in the school’s religious underpinnings that would make parents suspicious of vaccines, he said, and while the school doesn’t have a nurse, it does have several parents who work in health care.
The Madison public schools with the highest percentages of students on personal conviction waivers four years ago have seen those percentages fall. Marquette Elementary School on the Near East Side had 13.8 percent of students, or 30, on the waivers. As of last school year, that percentage was 8.0 percent.
O’Keeffe Middle School, which shares a building with Marquette, also had 8 percent of its students on personal conviction waivers last year. The only other Madison public schools with a rate higher than 5 percent were one of the district’s alternative high schools, Shabazz, at 7 percent, and Lowell, Lapham, Franklin and Randall elementary schools, all at 6 percent.