Dipping Vaccination Rates Putting More Kids at Risk

Filed under: Medical Conditions, In The News

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Skipping a vaccine now could lead to major health problems later. Credit: George Frey, Getty Images

Tyler Lundlum's story is one of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Two years ago, the then 10-year-old boy contracted meningococcal meningitis, a swelling of membranes around the brain and spinal cord that's caused by bacteria passed by nasal or oral droplets, LiveScience.com reports.

He lost both his legs just under the knees from the severe illness, which could have been prevented if he, or those around him, had been vaccinated, according to the health site.

And yet, some parents are choosing to avoid routine immunizations for fear that they are putting their child in danger. It's a decision that puts their kids -- and their communities -- at risk, experts tell LiveScience.

Lundlum's story underscores what is happening to a growing number of youngsters, but efforts are underway to encourage parents to get their children vaccinated, according to LiveScience. The meningococcal meningitis vaccination is at least 85 percent effective at preventing the illness and is widely available and strongly recommended by health officials.

The number of children enrolled in private health plans getting properly immunized declined by as much as 3.5 percent last year, according to a recent report by the National Committee on Quality Assurance (NCQA), a nonprofit organization that tracks health care quality.

"It is the worst thing on earth to watch your child's tissues slowly dying in front of you," Tyler's mother, Shara Ludlum, tells LiveScience. Now a participant in the Voices of Meningitis public education campaign, she hopes her son's story will encourage others to get vaccinated.

Tyler, who is now 12 years old, has two prosthetics that run from the bottom of his leg bones to just under his knees, along with removable feet that he can add J-shaped springs for running. Luckily, he escaped suffering brain damage.

Fear of vaccination "is a reasonable gut reaction," Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, tells LiveScience. But, he adds, it's a fear that should be battled with the knowledge offered by science.

Propelling this anti-vaccination cause by some parents is information found on the Internet, which teems with rumors and anecdotes about links between vaccines and devastating illnesses, Offit tells LiveScience.

A possible cause of the vaccination drop is that parents with commercial health plans may refuse vaccines for their children based on the unproven but increasingly popular notion that vaccines cause autism, according to the NCQA report.

"The drop in childhood vaccinations is disturbing because parents are rejecting valuable treatment based on misinformation," NCQA President Margaret E. O'Kane says in the NCQA report. "All of us in health care need to work together to get better information to the public."

Yet, increasing numbers of parents are falling prey to the rumors and choosing to eschew vaccinations, thinking that they are playing it safe, Offit says.

"But the choice to not get a vaccine is not a risk-free choice," he tells LiveScience. "A lot of diseases are out there, and if you choose to let your guard down, your child could suffer."

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.