Mar 20, 2015

A few schools have large pools of unvaccinated kids

The Des Moines Register
Tony Leys
March 1, 2015

Although the vast majority of Iowa children are fully vaccinated, a few schools stand out for their relatively large pools of students who haven't received their shots.

Public health experts worry those schools could provide a toehold to highly contagious diseases, such as measles, which could be spread to others in the community.

The Iowa Department of Public Health recently released 2013-14 immunization data for every school with more than 100 students. The Des Moines Register created a searchable database so parents can see how their children's schools scored in the first-time report.

Out of the more than 1,300 schools, records showed just 17 with fewer than 80 percent of their students who were fully vaccinated.

One — the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment — has by far the lowest vaccination rate. Just 47 percent of 178 students at the private Fairfield school had records showing they received all required shots last school year.

The school draws most of its students from those who practice Transcendental Meditation, as taught by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Movement members say it is not a religion, but stresses "natural" methods of staying well. Followers are urged to eat nutritious foods, exercise regularly, meditate and take other steps to maintain their health.

Richard Beall, who is head of the school, said he plans to hold a parent meeting soon to discuss vaccinations. He said the school takes no official stance on the subject, but it wants parents to make informed choices.

Beall said many of his school's students obtained religious exemptions from vaccinations. When asked why, given proponents' contention that Transcendental Meditation is not a religion, Beall said the state gives parents the option of citing their private religious beliefs.

"We don't have authority or reason to probe behind it," he said.

Beall said the parent meeting will include discussion of what to do if a disease such as measles crops up among the students. As it happens, Fairfield was the site of the last Iowa measles outbreak, which happened in 2004 when an unvaccinated teenager brought the virus back from India and infected two other people. Public health authorities blunted the outbreak with an extensive and expensive quarantine and vaccination campaign.


The presence of the Maharishi school is a major reason that Jefferson County has the second-highest level of vaccination exemptions in Iowa. State records show that 9 percent of all school-age children in the county had exemptions last school year. Of those, 169 cited religious reasons and four cited medical reasons.

The situation frustrates Fairfield pediatrician Jay Heitsman. Like most mainstream physicians, Heitsman is a firm believer in the value of vaccinations.

Heitsman said he often speaks to parents who think vaccines can be dangerous and are unnecessary. He tells them he strongly disagrees, based on the conclusions of overwhelming research. He knows some physicians refuse to treat families who won't vaccinate children, out of fear they'll bring diseases into clinics.

Heitsman hasn't taken that step. "I choose instead that every time I see them, I give them heck," he said.

He said a few parents who previously refused to obtain vaccinations have recently brought their kids in for shots because of news about the national measles outbreak. He hopes that's a sign of progress.

Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf, a Fairfield physician who practices Transcendental Meditation, said she doesn't generally discuss vaccination with her patients. "I think they've made up their minds by the time they come to me," she said. "I don't tell them one way or the other."

Lonsdorf, who went to medical school at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, moved to Fairfield because of its concentration of people interested in using other health practices alongside Western medicine.

Lonsdorf said that if she had children, she probably would vaccinate them. But she said it's not surprising some others want to rely on natural methods, such as diet and exercise, to maintain wellness.

"Because of that, there's probably a lot of concern about injecting substances into their bodies, especially at a young age," she said.

She recommends patients take vaccines in certain circumstances. For example, she said, people with chronic health conditions that weaken their immune systems should consider getting annual flu vaccinations. But she said her patients tend to take good care of themselves, and she doesn't believe they need tighter government requirements to force them to take precautions.

"Government can't solve bad habits — our eating junk food, trashing our immune systems, not getting enough sleep, abusing alcohol," she said.


Leila Montgomery is one of the Maharishi school parents who obtained a religious exemption to avoid vaccinations. Montgomery's 9-year-old son, Dil, is a third-grader at the school, and her 18-month-old daughter, Lyra, will soon start preschool there.

Montgomery said her application for the exemption wasn't based on an organized religion's teachings, but it was sincere. She defines her religious belief as "my ability to listen to my inner intuition." She added: "I believe science is not my God."

Montgomery said her children never get sick, and she credits good nutrition, exercise and other healthy habits. She doubts vaccines are as effective as promoters claim. She said she's not overly worried about her kids contracting diseases such as measles.

"I don't live my life in fear," she said.

Officials of several other Iowa schools that scored low in the new report said the data are skewed. For example, Elaine Collins, office manager at All Saints School in Cedar Rapids, said a significant number of students did not have up-to-date vaccination records on file when the school was audited last year.

The statewide data show 25 percent of the school's students were unvaccinated for the 2013-14 year. In fact, Collins said, only two out of more than 200 are now not vaccinated. Those two have exemptions, she said, "and everybody else is up to date."

Jaclyn Greiner, the nurse at Washington Township Elementary near Kalona, said nearly three-quarters of the 375 students listed as attending there are actually home-schooled children who rarely mingle with the in-school students.

Many home-schooled students have religious exemptions to vaccinations, she said. Overall, the state report shows 65 percent of the school's students were fully vaccinated last year, but Greiner said 87 percent of students who attend the school full-time are fully vaccinated.

Officials of several schools also said other reasons, including tardy paperwork, help explain relatively low scores in the new state report.

Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, medical director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, agreed the report might not reflect current vaccination status at every school. For one thing, the statistics are based on audits done last school year. Some schools have probably taken steps to improve their rates or their record-keeping since then, she said.

Also, the numbers don't specify how many students at a given school had medical exemptions, which nearly everyone agrees are legitimate reasons not to be vaccinated. The health department didn't break down how many medical and religious exemptions were granted at each school, because it feared doing so could breach confidentiality by letting people deduce which kids probably had such exemptions.

Quinlisk said many children who have medical exemptions avoid only one or two shots to which they have allergies. But many children with religious exemptions skip all vaccinations, she said.

Quinlisk suggested that parents at schools attended by large numbers of students who are not vaccinated ask school leaders what's behind those numbers.

If the school still has many unvaccinated children, she said, parents could consider working with administrators or the PTA to try to increase educational efforts about the benefits of vaccine.