Georgia parents unable to find out vaccination rates in their children's schools

A Channel 2 Action News investigation found that parents cannot find out the vaccination coverage rate in their child's school.

ATLANTA — A Channel 2 Action News investigation found that parents cannot find out the vaccination coverage rate in their child's school.

Channel 2 anchor Sophia Choi looked into the matter for five months and learned it's a tough question to answer.

The Georgia Department of Public Health provided data on the county level that showed what percentage of kindergartners were not vaccinated for the 2018-2019 school year.

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Cherokee County had the highest rate with 4.8 percent. That was close to what experts call a dangerous level. Doctors said that at least 95 percent of children should be vaccinated to keep the community safe.

However, Channel 2 Action News could not obtain the breakdown in each school. That's a concern for some parents.

Shenita Harris' 5-year-old daughter, Honesty, is often at the doctor's office for a kidney condition.

"She gets sick, way sicker than other kids," Harris said.

Honesty depends on other kids to get their vaccines because she cannot.

"[She is] so far behind on shots that she cannot get because she [is] on kidney and steroid medicine," explained Harris.

It's important for Harris to know if Honesty's classmates are vaccinated, but that information is hard to come by.

The state health department tracks it, but won't share it. Channel 2 Action News tried for five months.

In a statement, the department cited HIPAA concerns, saying, "Breaking the numbers down by individual schools results in small numbers... we have a reasonable basis to believe that the data we would provide by individual school could be used to identify individuals."

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Doctors said that looking at smaller populations, like specific schools, matters because that's where outbreaks begin.

"Are there pockets where there are lower rates? That's where outbreaks can start and then spread to the larger community," said Dr. Sean O'Leary, of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

"That's something that would be really great for families from a consumer point of view, is to say, 'Oh, this classroom 99.9 percent of people are immunized, as opposed to some classrooms in other schools where it might be 85 percent. And that's not really a safe place for your child,'" said Dr. Margaret Sherman, of Piedmont Physicians Pediatrics, in Athens.

This year saw the highest number of measles cases reported in the U.S. since 1992.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 1,200 cases in more than 30 states. Eight cases were in Georgia, including one Cobb County middle school student who was not vaccinated.

According to the CDC, the highly contagious disease spreads in communities with pockets of unvaccinated people.

Rebecca Hendricks lost her 5-year-old daughter, Scarlet, to influenza. Scarlet had not received the flu shot.

"I wasn't against the flu shot at all; I just wasn't educated. I wasn't educated and I was busy," said Hendricks. "I didn't realize the more people that got vaccinated the better off the immunity is in your community."

Hendricks founded the End-FLUenza Project to warn other parents to get their children vaccinated against the flu and other preventable diseases.

"There [are] so many people out there that just aren't looking for the information because they just don't know about it, like me," she said.

Doctors agree that vaccines are our best shot at keeping diseases from spreading.

"Vaccines truly are a gift. They're safe, they're effective," O'Leary said. "This is a no-brainer from the perspective of pediatricians."

In Georgia, students are required to have 13 immunizations to go to school. They include hepatitis A and B, measles, meningitis and chickenpox.

There are two ways around those requirements. One is a medical exemption, like in Honesty's case. The other is a religious exemption.

Some doctors call religious exemptions a loophole.

"All of the world's major religions are in support of vaccination because vaccinations save lives," O'Leary said. "A lot of people are claiming religious exemptions because that's the only nonmedical exemption available."

Hendricks said that's often the case for busy parents.

"It's easier to have your child to bring a form home or pull up a form online and just decline it," she said.

Honesty's mom worries what would happen if her already-stressed system comes into contact with an unvaccinated child carrying a disease.

"All kids should have [their] shots," Harris said.