Amid Rise in U.S. Measles Cases, High School Parents Divided on Vaccinations

But public health professionals say it’s vital for high schoolers to ensure their shots are up to date.

Some parents say they shouldn’t be required to have their children vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared measles officially eliminated in the United States in 2000. But after 222 measles cases and 17 outbreaks surfaced in the United States in 2011, the virus is experiencing a life after death. 

Although none of the measles outbreaks and cases in 2011 proved fatal, health professionals say the virus is extremely contagious and it's vital for parents to ensure their children's vaccinations are up to date. That's advice parents of high school students need to take particularly seriously, says Carrie Byington, a professor of pediatrics at University of Utah School of Medicine

Many measles cases are contracted on international travel, and high school students are more likely than elementary or middle school students to travel overseas, Byington says. The virus is still common in Asia and Europe, where there was a measles outbreak with 37,000 cases in 2011, according to Nichole Bobo, the nursing education director at the National Association of School Nurses, a Silver Spring, Md.-based nonprofit. 

"High school students planning to travel to Britain for the Olympics this summer should check with their parents about whether or not their immunizations are up to date," Bobo says. 

High school students also share computers and other equipment, adds Byington, the University of Utah professor. "The contacts that happen within the school settings may be more intense than what you would get by just walking through a mall, or spending an hour at a religious service, or attending a sporting event," she says. "You may ride together in the school bus, eat together, and it's over multiple hours a day and a great proportion of the week." 

[Read about how measles deaths are down worldwide.] 

In the United States, about 90 percent of the population has had two doses of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, according to Jeanette St. Pierre, associate director for communication science at the CDC's Division of Viral Diseases. But some communities have lower vaccine coverage. "Unvaccinated people put themselves and others are risk for measles and its serious complications, like pneumonia, encephalitis, or even death," St. Pierre says. 

Laws governing what vaccinations are required for high school students vary by state, and some states offer personal, religious, or medical exemptions. Bobo says parents who don't vaccinate their children may be influenced by a 1998 article in the journal Lancet, which suggested vaccines can transmit autism and has since been retracted. "The risk of contracting a potentially deadly, vaccine-preventable disease outweighs the risk of being vaccinated," she says. 

[Read a study suggesting measles vaccines don't increase the risk of seizures.] 

One parent who chose not to vaccinate her 11th grader, who attends Fair Lawn High School in New Jersey, is Caryn Starr-Gates. 

"We are not afraid of illness the way some people—many people—appear to be, and we trust the body's ability to fight off disease as needed," Starr-Gates says. "The fact we are in northern New Jersey with excellent hospitals and healthcare available to us also gives us pause about pouring all that dangerous stuff into [our daughter's] bloodstream. Why not give the body a chance to fight off the disease, and turn to the physicians when necessary?" 

That's not a perspective that resonates with Peggy Frank, whose daughter Taylor is a freshman at Chaminade College Preparatory, a West Hills, Calif., high school. Although Taylor had her annual physical "very recently," Frank called the doctor after seeing the CDC alert to check on her vaccinations. "I think all parents should routinely ensure that immunizations are up to date," she says. 

Parents shouldn't focus only on measles, however, say St. Pierre of the CDC and Byington, the pediatrics professor. Of the 27,550 reported pertussis—or whooping cough—cases in 2010, 4,858 were patients between the ages of 11 and 18, Byington says. 

[Read seven ways to ensure a healthy college experience.]