As vaccination rates drop, Maricopa County schools lose 'herd immunity'

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The potential spread of illness is not the only result of non-vaccination. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 file photo) The potential spread of illness is not the only result of non-vaccination. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 file photo)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5 file photo) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 file photo)
Less than 94 percent of Maricopa county kindergartners are vaccinated. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 News) Less than 94 percent of Maricopa county kindergartners are vaccinated. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 News)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

Vaccination rates in Arizona are falling year after year, and we’ve reached a critical level. The Arizona Department of Health Services always wants to have a 95 percent vaccination rate among school kids. According to the most recent data that came out of Maricopa County, that rate has fallen below 94 percent.

“What that means is that we’ve lost our community immunity in Maricopa County," Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, explained. "So if we get even one case of measles or another vaccine-preventable disease, it’s going to spread efficiently throughout our schools.”

[RELATED: Researchers: Maricopa County’s low vaccination rates could put larger population at risk]

[READ MORE: Largest US measles outbreak in Arizona (July 7, 2016)]

The news gets worse for people like Nathaniel Molina, an 11-year-old with a rare cancer called Ewing sarcoma. He's undergoing chemotherapy. Because of that, doctors are holding his booster shots for MMR, tetanus and some other diseases back a whole year.

“Nearly all of our patients in this clinic are immune-compromised; their immune systems just don’t function normally. And so they are not able to benefit directly from vaccines," said Dr. Cathy Lee-Miller, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

Nathaniel's mom, Lori, has always vaccinated her kids but left other people's personal decisions about the matter alone. Nathaniel's diagnosis has changed how she thinks about it.

"In my mind, it was a personal choice and now that it’s affecting my child in that school," she said. "I mean, it’s a community choice."

Kids like Nathaniel rely on other people’s vaccinations to keep them safe through what’s called "herd immunity," which means even the unvaccinated would be protected from a disease if there were a 95 percent vaccination rate.

[RELATED: Opting out of vaccines leaves these US 'hot spots' most vulnerable for outbreaks]

If an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease were to happen, kids who are unvaccinated for any reason would be kept out of school for a minimum of 21 days.

Though his prognosis looks good, Nathaniel’s mom wishes she could know if someone in his class was voluntarily unvaccinated.

"It’s scary. To wonder and not know I guess is part of it," Lori said. "It’s frustrating that it seems as though not vaccinating is based off of mythological information.”

So if we get even one case of measles or another vaccine-preventable disease, it’s going to spread efficiently throughout our schools.

~ Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, Maricopa County Department of Public Health 

Despite what science says about vaccines, Arizona is one of the states where it’s easiest for parents to get exemptions to the shots required by state law. All they have to do is sign a "personal belief waiver."

Many people sign such waivers because of studies that claimed vaccines caused autism. Those studies have since been debunked.

[RELATED: Study: Children with autism less likely to be fully vaccinated]

[RELATED: Arizona doctor refuses to vaccinate his sons (Feb. 3, 2015)]

[CBS 5 INVESTIGATES: Dangers from unvaccinated children (Oct. 28, 2011)]


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