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Slightly More Allegheny County Kids Skipping Vaccines For Religious, Moral Reasons

Damian Dovarganes
A pediatrician holds a dose of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine at his practice in Northridge, Calif. on January 29, 2015.

The percentage of school students in Allegheny County who have received all their required vaccinations has dropped by about a percent since 2010.

During Wednesday’s county board of health meeting, epidemiologist Kristen Mertz reported that 96.3 percent of kids in grades kindergarten through 12th received these immunizations, which include vaccines for polio, hepatitis B and meningitis.

The portion of parents and guardians who obtain exemptions for health reasons has remained steady, but county data show an increase in parents opting out due to religious and moral exemptions.

“It’s not nearly so bad here as in other places, like California. We really have really high overall rates,” said Mertz. “We’re not too concerned at this point, but we definitely are tracking it.”

Despite increased suspicion surrounding vaccines, immunization rates remain high according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But clusters of unvaccinated people do put others at risk.

An immunization that’s recommend, but not required, is the human papilloma virus vaccine, which requires three doses to complete. Because it’s not mandated, just more than half of 7th graders in Allegheny County have received at least one of the vaccine injections.

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that's often associational with cervical cancer, but boys and men are also at risk.

“A high percent of head and neck cancers are due the human papilloma virus,” said Mertz. “There are now more cases of head and neck cancer due to HPV in men, then there are cervical cancers in women.”

The CDC’s National Immunization Survey for teens finds that, nationally, 53 percent of girls and 44 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 are up to date on their HPV vaccine. It also shows that Pennsylvania is doing slightly better than the national average, with 56 percent of girls and 49 percent of boys having received the vaccination. 

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.