Citing religious reasons, more parents choosing to forego vaccinations for children in metro school district

LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. -- More families are opting out of vaccinations for their children in the Lee’s Summit School District.

“If you don’t vaccinate your child they’re going to be subject to spreading life-threatening disease. Their life is at risk as well. I think it’s irresponsible not to,” said Michelle Higinbotham.

She vaccinated her three children; it was no different for her granddaughter, Willa. But the number of parents choosing not to vaccinate for religious reasons is on the rise in the Lee’s Summit School District. Pediatrician Steve Lauer works at The University of Kansas Hospital.

“People are, in our views, misusing that as a way or just saying we don’t want to have this done. It’s still an exemption on the books in many states and can be used for that,” he said. “We think that’s a mistake and really shouldn’t be a part of the deal. There are some states moving away from that now as we see a rise in vaccine preventable disease.”

Over the past five years, the number of families claiming religious exemptions has more than doubled in the school district. That means 326 families did not vaccinate their child or children this year.

“The vaccine program is a victim of its own success. Nobody knows pertussis, measles, and meningitis look like because we don’t have those diseases,” said Lauer. “The reality is it’s the most effective program in medical history short of washing your hands.”

The district says parents don’t have to vaccinate if the immunization violates their religious beliefs. Higinbotham says she’s surprised at the number of people using religious exemptions from vaccinations.

“It’s a problem. I don’t think it should be a religious question. The science has shown it’s important and protects children, it saves their lives,” she said.

The Jackson County Health Department says there are more parents choosing religious exemption this year than last.

Over in Johnson County, the department says it does not keep track of that.