Measles revives vaccine debate in area

What do elementary schools in Glenville, Bethlehem, Saratoga Springs and Schuylerville have in commo

What do elementary schools in Glenville, Bethlehem, Saratoga Springs and Schuylerville have in common?

They have the highest rate of unvaccinated students in the Capital Region, according to data released by the state Department of Health.

The public schools are still mostly vaccinated — Glendaal Elementary School in Glenville tops the public school unvaccinated list at 3 percent of the student body, or about 9 children. Schuylerville has the most unvaccinated by number, 14 children, with 1.9 percent of the student body unvaccinated.

But some private schools have far higher unvaccinated rates — so high that some pediatricians are alarmed.

At a glance

A look at the highest rate of unvaccinated students among private schools in the region (not counting Amish):

• River Run Community Montessori in Niskayuna: 37.5% unvaccinated due to

religious exemptions

• Waldorf School of Saratoga: 0.5% medical, 25.1% religious

• Perth Bible Christian Academy: 14.3%


Highest rates among public schools:

• Glendaal Elementary School in Glenville: 3.3% religious

• Elsmere Elementary School in Bethlehem: 1.4% medical, 2.2% religious

• Geyser Road Elementary

School in Saratoga

Springs: 1.9%


• Schuylerville





Outside of Amish schools, a private pre-K to eighth-grade school in Niskayuna has the highest percentage of unvaccinated children. At River Run Montessori School on Union Street, 37 percent of the children are not vaccinated against measles, polio and other serious illnesses.

That could pose a serious problem, Schenectady pediatrician Dr. Namsoo Lee said. If the measles outbreak that began in California spreads here, Lee isn’t worried about schools in which at least 90 percent of the children are vaccinated. But it could spread rapidly if a higher percentage of unvaccinated children gather together, he said.

He was stunned by the River Run school’s rates.

“You are kidding me,” he said when he learned 37 percent of the students are not vaccinated. “Then, they’re going to be a problem.”

He saw children in his care die of measles when he worked in Korea, so he will sit with parents and patiently assuage every concern, for as long as it takes, to convince them to get their children vaccinated.

“If they still refuse it, I give a little more time and discuss it again,” he said. “I tell them you have to do it, not only for yourself but also for others.”

Often, parents worry about rare side effects, he added.

“I say, it does happen, but it’s not that common,” he said. “They have a lot of wrong information. They go on the Internet.”

Lee says statistically, it’s more likely for someone to have a bad side effect from the disease than from the vaccine. But some parents say they would rather trust their own research.

“I’ve found that for every ‘yay’ to vaccinate there is a ‘nay,’ ” said Michelle Vergona, who advises parents to listen to their “gut instinct” when making the decision.

She worried about side effects and delayed some vaccinations, but eventually got them while watching her daughter closely for seizures and other rare reactions.

‘very serious’

One of Lee’s concerns about the recent measles outbreak is that a healthy, unvaccinated child could catch the disease and pass it to an infant or immuno-compromised child. They are much more likely to have complications from measles, while the healthy child would likely recover without being hospitalized.

“It can be very, very serious when you’re little” or immuno-compromised, Lee said.

Children in some local schools have a medical exemption from vaccines because they are too sick to get the shots. That includes children undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, which also makes them more vulnerable to complications of diseases. Other children might have severe allergies — in recent years, some vaccines have been rebuilt to avoid using eggs so children with egg allergies can get them.

Studies linking the MMR — measles, mumps and rubella — vaccine to autism have been debunked. The doctor who did the study admitted later he falsified his data; he lost his medical license as a result. But statewide vaccination data shows the MMR vaccine is skipped more often than vaccines for polio and other diseases.

The erroneous connection between the vaccine and autism frustrates some parents, including Loretta Longo of Schenectady. Her son has autism, and she’s offended by the idea that parents would rather risk their child dying of complications from measles than having autism.

“I’d really appreciate it if they’d sit and think about what they’re saying about me and my son,” she said. “I vaccinate. I also encourage everyone else to vaccinate. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that occurs in utero — and is genetic. Autism is not caused by vaccines.”

At Perth Bible Christian Academy, the Rev. Eden Hofer said some of his students’ parents only object to “some” vaccines.

“There are a couple vaccines they have more concerns about,” he said, declining to name them specifically.

In New York state, parents must fill out a form naming the specific religious reasons for not vaccinating their children, but Hofer said he thought parents wanted to avoid the “ramifications” of certain vaccines. As for a religious reason, he said it came down to faith.

“They really want to just trust God. They believe that we’re safe in God’s hands, which we certainly are,” he said.

But if there’s an outbreak, nurses are worried. At Schuylerville Elementary School, nurses are keeping an eye on the California outbreak. Since about 15 children are unvaccinated, nurses are already watching for symptoms of measles, nurse Michele Talbot said.

“We’re always concerned when there’s cases,” she said.

If measles spreads here, nurses plan to immediately call the parents of every unvaccinated child, she said.

amish challenge

In Montgomery County, public health nurses have a bigger challenge: Amish children. Every fall, they must visit every Amish school to collect religious exemption statements or check immunization records. The Montgomery County nurses also use that visit to talk up the value of vaccines.

“We try to get them to get the vaccines they need,” said supervising public health nurse Cindy Christman.

Some Amish groups will not accept any modern medicine, she said, but other sects are willing to consider vaccinations. Her efforts have borne fruit: At some Amish schools in the county, half the children are now vaccinated.

“We talk about outbreaks, and they know measles is out there, and some of them will get vaccinated. Some of them believe it’s God’s will,” she said.

If measles spreads to the Capital Region, she has an emergency plan in place.

“We would get out there and be the first ones out there to say, ‘Hey, stay home,’ ” she said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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