Special Report: The Vaccination Debate

“It just goes both ways. There’s risks on both sides.”

Recent outbreaks of whooping cough here in Northern Michigan and measles across the country have made vaccination a hot topic.

Our area has one of the highest un-vaccinated rates in the state. Michigan ranks in the top three states with kids entering kindergarten with no immunizations.

The question is why?

In this Special Report, Adam Bartelmay joins us with a look at both sides of the vaccination debate.

While our un-vaccinated rate is comparatively high — the vast majority of children in our region are fully vaccinated.

And some places in Northern Michigan have a higher percentage of people opting out than the rest of the state.

Healthcare workers say that puts everyone at risk.

“Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, wow I know nothing about vaccines, I don’t know anything about science, but I don’t think I’m gonna vaccinate my kids,” said mother Angela. 

Bob and Angela, they asked us not to use their last name, are the parents of a six-year-old. They want to break the stereo-type of people who support vaccine choice.

“People that don’t vaccinate are just ignorant hippies or they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re not scientists. They don’t know. You don’t have to be a scientist to read the peer review articles and learn.”

Michigan is one of 28 states allowing parents to opt out for philosophical reasons. 48 states permit it for religious reasons, but health workers say that’s not a good idea.

“We are at a greater risk than an area that would have a better vaccination rate for outbreaks to occur in our area,” said Dr. Michael Collins, Grand Traverse County Health Department. 

Data from the Michigan Department of Community Health shows Grand Traverse County has the fifth highest percentage of kindergartners with vaccine waivers in the state — at 12.8 percent. Leelanau County — the highest at 19.5 percent. Cheboygan and Emmet counties are also in the top five.

“Being high in the waiver rates, we just have a lot of independent thinkers here,” said Dr. Collins. “And that’s a good thing, except that, in this case, I think some of them are making what I think to be the wrong decision.”

But Bob and Angela say they have done a lot of research and are concerned with what they regard as harmful ingredients, such as aluminum. They say even reading the list of possible side effects on vaccine inserts scares them.

Bob says, “some of the other warnings, including death on some of them.”

Dr. Christopher Ledtke is an infectious diseases doctor at Munson Medical Center. He says people who opt out have been frightened by false information.

“There is a lot of misinformation online, in certain magazines and published books that would suggest that vaccines are dangerous and ineffective and that’s just not the truth,” said Dr. Ledtke.

Ledtke says a recent outbreak of pertussis or whooping cough in Grand Traverse County could have been prevented if every child had been vaccinated.

“This is one of the most under-vaccinated parts of the country. So, that’s part of the reason why pertussis has been able to take hold in this area.”

The Grand Traverse County Health Department says one of their missions is to tell people vaccinations are not dangerous.

“We try to explain the minuscule amounts of aluminum or mercury or whatever that are in vaccines compared to what children get in their diet or from the environment,” said Dr. Collins.

But vaccine choice supporters are not convinced.

Angela says, “any drug and vaccines are a drug or a medicine. Any drug or medicine has the potential to have side effects.”

There’s also a new law this year in Michigan. Any new vaccine waivers will only be granted after parents get information on vaccine benefits from their local health department.

“Families who want to have philosophical or religious waivers for their children in terms of getting into school, have to come and have education from the health department,” Dr. Collins said. 

But even then that information may not be heeded.

“We show people the mountain of evidence that suggests that vaccines are safe and effective and it doesn’t matter,” said Dr. Ledtke. 

“We stress it’s good to have information from both sides,” said Angela. “Listen to what your doctor says, but also do some of your own scientific research that’s out there.”

No vaccine is 100 percent effective, but health officials say the benefits outweigh any potential risk.

Doctors also remind people who have been vaccinated that immunizations begin to lose their effectiveness over time.

The recommend talking to your healthcare provider about getting boosters.