Martha’s Vineyard students lag in required vaccinations

Martha’s Vineyard students lag in required vaccinations

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The number of students with exemptions is more than six times the state average and puts the community at risk, health experts say.

This graph provides a comparison of Martha's Vineyard immunization exemption rates by school with the state average.The state average for students with exemptions entering kindergarten this year was 1.5 percent, according to a 2013 state report. — Graph by Nathaniel Horwitz

Martha’s Vineyard school children lag well behind state and national vaccination rates, according to Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) figures. The failure of Island parents to vaccinate their children against a list of communicable diseases puts their children and the community at risk, state and federal public health experts said.

Recent publicized outbreaks of mumps, measles, and whooping cough across the country underscore the importance of vaccinations, medical experts said.

Children are required by state law to be vaccinated against 14 communicable diseases in order to attend public school. The law allows only for a medical or religious exemption from the vaccination requirement. Philosophical exemptions are not allowed.

The majority of Island parents who have failed to vaccinate their children claim a religious exemption. In conversations with The Times, school nurses and Island physicians said parents are claiming religious exemptions to mask their philosophical opposition to vaccinations.

Above average

“There aren’t many medical exemptions in our state, less than 1 percent,” DPH director of epidemiology and immunization Dr. Larry Madoff said in a phone conversation with The Times. “All of the others, the majority, are religious exemptions. These are the only exemptions allowed in Massachusetts.”

A religious exemption is allowed, the law states: “If a parent or guardian submits a written statement that immunizations conflict with their sincere religious beliefs.”

Martha’s Vineyard has six times the the state average and five times the national average of students exempted from required vaccinations. The majority of those are based on religious exemptions, according to data provided by Island school officials.

The state average for students with exemptions entering kindergarten this year was 1.5 percent, according to a 2013 report by the DPH.

According to the report, in the Cape Cod counties of Dukes, Barnstable, and Nantucket County (the report did not provide separate data for each county), the rate of exempted kindergarteners was 4.5 percent.

Data collected by The Times from the seven Island schools reveals the rate of exempted students is 9 percent on Martha’s Vineyard.

An exemption does not necessarily mean a student has no immunization, health officials said. Often, children with exemptions are missing only one or two vaccinations.

However, the rate of children with no immunization whatsoever, 2 percent on Martha’s Vineyard, is almost triple the national average of 0.78 percent.

Immunization school data

School nurses are responsible for compiling vaccination data. The following chart, compiled from data provided to The Times by school nurses, reveals that the Chilmark School, Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, and West Tisbury School have the highest number of students exempt from vaccinations.

School by school comparison.
School by school comparison.

*School population is based on the official October 1 census provided by the superintendent’s office (the number for the Charter School was provided by the school nurse). Attendance may vary slightly throughout the year.

^Tisbury school has 23 students with religious exemptions, 1 student with a medical exemption, and 1 student with both.

Herd health

“Vaccinating children according to the recommended schedule is one of the best ways to protect them from 14 harmful and potentially deadly diseases before their second birthday,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spokesman Jason McDonald said in a conversation with The Times. “If enough children do not get immunized, it can break down ‘herd’ immunity and pose a danger to kids who are either too young to get vaccinated or unable to get vaccinated against the diseases, such as people who are immunosuppressed or are taking immunosuppressants for cancer treatment, as well as those people for whom the vaccine did not provide immunity, because unfortunately vaccines are not 100 percent effective.”

According to the CDC, there are currently outbreaks of measles in New York City, mumps at Ohio State University, and meningitis in Princeton, New Jersey, as well as several thousand cases of whooping cough (pertussis) nationwide. These reports come amid growing concern that falling immunization rates nationwide are leaving communities susceptible to potentially fatal diseases like polio that had been almost completely eradicated after the introduction of vaccinations, and are now returning.

“Immunizations are the most important medical advance in history,” Dr. Madoff said. “I can’t overstate how important they are. When a child isn’t vaccinated, they’re individually at risk, but they also put their community at risk. Even the best vaccination doesn’t cover everyone, so we need everyone to be vaccinated to stop infectious diseases from coming into contact with susceptible people.”

Dr. Madoff said pockets of exemptions heighten the risks. “For measles you need about 95 percent of the population to be vaccinated to prevent an outbreak,” he said. “Polio is less contagious, somewhere around 85 percent, and mumps is in the middle. Even then, however, the county rate, or the town rate, might be lower or higher in a small community. These are very serious diseases. Pertussis, whooping cough, requires around 95 percent. For babies, who may not have immunity, there’s a significant risk of death.”

He urged parents to think carefully about exposing their children to vaccine-preventable diseases. “There’s a lot of concerns and parents are sincerely worried about vaccinating their children,” he said. “I would urge them to compare the theoretical risk of vaccination with the very real dangers of these diseases,” he said.

He cited concerns about brain damage resulting from pertussis to illustrate his point, saying that the actual occurrence was statistically insignificant at 1 case in 1 million doses. “Anyone who is thinking logically, in the best interest of their children, should vaccinate them,” he said. “The benefits so far outweigh the risks.”

According to the CDC, serious side effects from vaccines are rare. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, a branch of the United States DPH’s Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), established to compensate the families of children who have experienced damaging side effects from vaccines, has received a total of 15,100 claims since it was founded in 1988. Of those, 3,540 claims were deemed compensable, and the program has awarded a total of almost $2.7 billion in damages to claimants over the past 26 years.

Island at risk

Island doctors said that parents who chose not to vaccinate their children create a pathway for infection that leads beyond their doorstep.

Dr. Melanie Miller of Vineyard Pediatrics says that the Island is at risk. “We don’t have herd immunity on the Island for certain diseases, most importantly for measles,” she said. “We eliminate diseases by vaccinating. No one has to get the smallpox vaccine anymore because we got rid of that disease. Vaccines did that.”

Dr. Miller questioned the number of people claiming an exemption. “It’s not their religion telling them not to vaccinate their kids, maybe it’s the Internet,” she said. “Most people don’t have a religious belief against vaccinating. They think it’s dangerous for their kids or a conspiracy between the government and pharmaceutical companies. There’s no evidence that they have a religious opposition.”

Dr. Miller said vaccine-preventable illnesses were once rampant. She said people have become complacent. “In the late 1980s, I saw a lot of measles,” she said. “I saw an 18-year-old die of measles.”

Longtime Island pediatrician Michael Goldfein of Vineyard Pediatrics is concerned by the high number of unvaccinated students. “Measles is extremely contagious,” he said in an interview with the Times. “If there were someone at the Chilmark school with measles, most of the unimmunized students would contract it very quickly. It’s disturbing, especially when measles is as close as New York City. People have become very cavalier, because so many people are immunized and you don’t often see these diseases anymore.”

Dr. Goldfein has little patience for parents who he said use the religious exemption to shield their philosophical views and skirt state law.

“It’s very irresponsible, parents taking advantage of everyone who has accepted the small risk for the health of the community. We’re talking about totally preventable diseases with a minimal risk. Why would you subject your kid to one of these diseases? It’s a disaster waiting to happen. Vaccinating your kids is a no-brainer.”

Dr. Goldfein said Christian Scientists are the only major religion with a legitimate excuse. “But these people who just put a religious exemption on a form have to play the religious card because philosophical exemptions aren’t accepted in Massachusetts,” he said. “All of the kids on the Island who are partially vaccinated or not vaccinated are probably playing that card.”

He blamed the problem on Island culture. “The kind of people who are attracted to living in a place like this, we have some counter-culture people,” he said. “There’s conspiracy theories, a lot of people are really paranoid, they think that there’s a plot between pharmaceutical companies and the government. But reactions to vaccines are very, very rare.”

He cited a discredited study in 1998 that linked vaccination to autism. “A lot of the paranoia results from a falsified study in Great Britain,” he said. “There’s no link between immunization and autism.”

Dr. Goldfein said the current system does not require a parent or guardian to specify their religious exemption. “The schools turn a blind eye,” he said. “If there’s some gumption you can challenge their religious exemption.”

Schools respond

Superintendent of Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) Jim Weiss said school officials are limited in their ability to test a parent’s religious convictions. Mr. Weiss said he was concerned by the number of religious exemptions, but disagreed with Dr. Goldfein’s assessment that the schools turn a blind eye.

“I would like to see all of our kids immunized,” he said. “But if a parent says they have a religious objection there’s not much I can do. I can’t question their religion. Are there some people who are untruthful? Probably.”

Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School nurse Linda Leonard said that parental dishonesty was unacceptable. “If a parent is saying, ‘no, my exemption is philosophical not religious,’ I would have to exclude their child from school,” she told The Times. “It’s the law.”

Ms. Leonard added, “As a nurse, I can’t question a parent’s religious exemption, but why wouldn’t you give your child a vaccine that prevents diseases?”

Parental concerns

School immunization statistics concern Eric Glasgow, owner of Gray Barn Farm and father of two children in the Chilmark school. “It’s a very real danger that so many parents choose not to immunize,” he said in an interview with the Times. “People don’t understand how serious these diseases can be, that not immunizing can have profound repercussions. It’s understandable that you might choose not to give your kid three vaccines at once, but having susceptibility to polio or whooping cough is crazy. These are terrible diseases, and if they get a foothold, it’s not only you who’s being affected.”

A West Tisbury mother, who agreed to speak candidly on condition she not be identified because her child is enrolled in an Island elementary school, said she claimed a religious exemption because philosophical exemptions are not allowed in Massachusetts, something she thinks needs to be changed.

“There is no freedom that is more fundamental than the human right to decide what risks we take with our children,” she said in a conversation with The Times. “It’s a difficult decision for some people. It wasn’t for me. After I weighed the pros and cons and gathered information from both sides I made an informed choice.”

The mother believes there are a host of risks associated with immunizations, including autism.

“The statistics are out there,” she said. “There’s no hiding them. People have had many accidents with vaccines. Plus, if you look at what an immunization is made of, it’s like, here you’re trying to feed your children healthy, and you wouldn’t feed them formaldehyde or aluminum phosphate or acetone, or cow pox pus or rabid brain tissue, which you inject into your kids.”

She said her daughter has never been really sick. “She’s only gone to the doctor for school physicals, what was required or suggested, in part because her health wasn’t assaulted from the moment she was born, and therefore she has less illness to deal with now,” she said.

“When you go into a doctor’s office, and you get a pamphlet on vaccinations, you’re led to believe that first of all you don’t have a choice, and that it’s in the absolute best interest of your kid. They don’t talk about how the pertussis vaccine creates brain damage.”

Asked if she would immunize her daughter under the threat of school exclusion, the mother said she would not. “The basic choices are either home school, or join an organized religion for that reason,” she said. “I don’t make fear-based decisions or comply with that kind of pressure.”


  1. An island like Martha’s Vineyard is especially susceptible to the spreading of diseases. With the influx of seasonal visitors from accross the county/world and with the close proximity of island living we should be encouraging vaccinations. Parents should look at the real science and history of vacinations before choosing not to vaccinate and therefor endangering the health of the community.

  2. Great story. My child was put at risk when an anti-vaxxer sent her daughter to daycare with whooping cough.

  3. The CDC has reported that recent pertussis outbreaks have occurred in highly vaccinated populations. They suspect the current vaccine administered according to the current schedule does not provide sufficiently lasting protection to achieve herd immunity even with high vaccine coverage.

  4. Well, yes, MV does have herd mentality: ignorance and selfishness. The West Tisbury mother’s unbelievably selfish and ignorant philosophy is the epitome of what is wrong here. The disregard for the health of others, especially those at risk, is astonishing and nothing short of piggish. No wonder she would not give her name. Vaccinate your children and stop endangering the community.

  5. The “fundamental freedom” relies on other parents vaccinating their children so that the special ones who are not vaccinated don’t get sick with the awful diseases that other parents have prevented for them.

  6. “It’s a difficult decision for some people. It wasn’t for me. After I weighed the pros and cons and gathered information from both sides I made an informed choice.” Ummmm, you forgot the “un” in front of the word “informed”.

  7. “I don’t make fear-based decisions or comply with that kind of pressure.”—From someone afraid of what vaccines “could” do to their kid. The diseases are very real, and if contracted, will do very real harm to your child and many others. Everybody makes “fear based” decisions, the trick is to be afraid of the real stuff.

  8. It’s almost stupefying that there are people that will take the word of Jenny McCarthy over every reputable medical research study. I feel very bad for their children.

  9. I want to make a clear distinction between the Christian Scientists and the others using this loophole. A Christian Scientist would be unlikely to go to the doctor for anything. They also don’t drink alcohol or even caffeine, don’t do drugs, and are generally considered good bets by insurance companies. I highly doubt there are 191 kids on this island going to church at all, let alone 191 that are soooooo religious as to oppose vaccines.

  10. Pertussis vaccine causes brain damage? Just another fib…

    In a study published in 2006, the records of four large US health maintenance organizations were used to address this issue once again. A total of 452 children with encephalopathy diagnosed between 1981 and 1995 were compared with matched controls without encephalopathy. Exposure to pertussis vaccine in any postvaccination time period was no more common among cases than controls. The maximum possible all-cause incidence of encephalopathy after pertussis immunization was 1 in 370,000, which is no different from the background rate of encephalopathy in young children.

    The availability of new tools has shed light on the issue of pertussis vaccine and brain damage. In a landmark study, de novo mutations in the gene encoding a neuronal sodium channel protein were found in 11 of 14 patients who allegedly had suffered vaccine encephalopathy. These individuals were born with a molecular defect that would cause seizures and regression, vaccines or no vaccines. Despite this finding, and despite the fact that acellular pertussis vaccines have replaced whole-cell vaccines, encephalopathy remains an injury that can be compensated through the Vaccine Injury Table under the VICP.

  11. Does this include the HPV vaccine? I can understand why alot of parents wouldnt want their kids to get that one.

  12. Informed choice? WTF, you can go with centuries of modern medical science or go with the guy who admitted he faked his research because he and his lawyer friend were going to cash in on class action lawsuits. Hey, it’s only the health of your children and those around them, go listen to Jenny McCarthy, I’m sure she’s a much better informed source than the CDC, AMA, and WHO.

  13. Maybe we can get money from the Gates Foundation to educate and and inoculate the Third World up-island towns.

  14. Really? Asking MD’s their opinion is like asking a capo if organized crime is a good way of doing business. What do you think they’re going to say? Well…who could we ask? The AMA? ummmm…probably not cause they seem to always be tied up fighting off racketeering charges, hate to take their focus away from that.

    How about the FDA? Now there is a group you can really get behind, especially if your in the pill pushing business. What’s not to love about those boys and girls who put their hurried stamp of approval on…..well…pills,injections…you name it. Side effects? Stop being so paranoid. There is a chance, though, that you may experience one,some or all of the following…(please read the following as fast as humanly possible) nausea, shortness of breath, blurred vision, dizziness, swelling of tongue, irregular heart beat, suicidal thoughts, blistering skin rashes, violent outbursts, temporary loss of hearing and/or eye sight, diarrhea, vomiting, sleeplessness, liver and kidney toxicity, possible death etc, etc, etc. Yeah, that sounds safe. APPROVED! That’s a short and incomplete list that also does not include the ones they don’t share and the ones they don’t know about. Can you imagine what the actual findings were?

    What’s all this talk about “conspiracy theories”, paranoia and plots involving pharmaceutical companies and the government? Hey, everyone knows that those guys are totally on the up and up. Terms like “conspiracy theories”, “plot” and “paranoid” are used when someone has no useful information to provide. They are terms used to bully and discredit any opposing view. The majority of the medical world means well but unfortunately they have little or no idea about the long or short term effects of any new medicines or injections. How could they? It’s all new.

  15. I think it’s interesting the way the mom mentions some scary sounding ingredients and compares it to feeding her kids. Feeding and vaccines are totally different, and vaccines can’t be made from organic hummus or something. It’s just apples and oranges. I’m only annoyed by people using religion so they can send their kids to school, when they should either make a decision between home schooling, becoming active every week members of the Christian Scientist group here, because they want Jesus in their lives and to explore their faith of not practicing ANY modern medicine, or get the kid vaccinated for the recommended things. I can respect any of those decisions.

  16. OK now we have a statistic. Many people feel that vaccinations exacerbate autism, and may actually cause autism. Let’s see another statistic. How many children are on the “spectrum” on the Island, as compared to off island. It seems to me that the number of children who are not innoculated is beyond the number of people who are members of religions that are able to be exempt from innoculations. Those number should be able to correlate.

  17. am appalled at the uneven presentation on the topic of vaccination in the 4/17/14 edition of the MV Times titled, “Immunization lags-The Vineyard Herd is at risk.” The Times professes to tell both sides of a story which is a hallmark of “good” journalism. How did this article then have one whole page and then over 2/3 of the next 1/2 page of the article dedicated to the pro-vaccine perspective? This is not a balanced story.

    Nathaniel Horowitz shared a tremendous amount of information quoting doctors but only those with the dictated “status quo” perspective. Why didn’t you interview naturopath Oceana Rames? For those who would like another doctors perspective watch this video of Dr. Leonard Caldwell speaking on the subject with a more accurate perspective from my humble opinion:

    Dr. Miller dropped the “conspiracy” bomb on a very valid connection between our government bodies like the CDC, FDC and pharmaceutical corporations but forgot to include the deadly rhetoric spewed by the AMA as well. The government has no right to dictate to us what type of healthcare we practice nor can they mandate something like vaccines without supply a remedy. Yes there is a court for those injured by vaccines but it is barely working and as corrupt as all the other fraudulent Maritime Admiralty Law de facto courts that we currently allow to deceive and rob us of our Natural Rights as well as our money. Obamacare is a perfect example of proof of my claims.

    I fired Dr. Goldfein as my pediatrician after I explained that I did not want to vaccinate and why, he vaccinated my child against my will anyway. We never went back again and my child ended up on the autism spectrum as a result of those vaccines and almost dying of the Hep B at birth. Luckily through holistic means I was able to get him off the spectrum. Dr Goldfein stated that he,”has little patience for parents who he said use the religious exemption to shield their philosophical views and skirt state law.” Well I have little patience for those hiding behind their licenses professing to care for our children while damaging or destroying their immune systems in the name of “healthcare”. Dr. Goldfein also states, “Vaccinating your kids is a no-brainer,” and I agree. If you want your children to have no brains…a lowered IQ, brain damage, lifelong illness, or cancer then by all means vaccinate your children. SIDS is nothing more than vaccine murder and I have studied the scientific data in depth on this issue.

    I admire the woman who remained anonymous and the very last sentence of the article was my favorite,”I don’t make fear-based decisions or comply with that kind of pressure.” Kudos to you dear! Neither do I. There is much coming out now that shows just how deeply our government systems and healthcare systems are in bed with the pharmaceutical corporation and have no interest in our health but much interest in controlling every aspect of our lives. I am a social and spiritual activist and among other things I make YouTube videos about the corruption, lies, and pure propaganda we are fed. I made one on this topic called, “insights & Observations of a Rainbow Warrior GodDess: ObamaCaresNOT!!!. While I appreciate the use of allopathic medicine in trauma, a pharmaceutical-based approach to wellness is an oxymoron! Our conventional “healthcare” system in this country is nothing more than population control and genocide disguised as disease management. Look at the cancer industry alone. Vaccines cause cancer and they knew it when they first promoted them as many scientists have come forth near or on their deathbed admitting what they found and reported to their bosses only to have it suppressed and vaccination sold as a profound miracle. Pure propaganda.

    I don’t have anything against people who innocently get into medicine wanting to be a healer, as I am one as well. So I am calling on those on the island in this industry to do your own homework on these issues and research something besides the dogma dictated by the AMA, the biggest killer in this country. Iatrogenesis is disease or death caused by your doctor following correctly the protocol of the AMA. We have one of the sickest countries in the world even though we spend the most on “healthcare.” It is time to face these dark realities collectively so they can be changed.

    I know there are conscious people who have their own minds and have made their own choices on this island. I met a nurse who knows the truth about vaccines and does not vaccinate herself, yet her and any others exercising their healthcare rights after researching themselves are ostracized and made to wear a mask as if they are the ones potentially threatening their co-worker’s health, not the over-sterilized petri dish of superbacterias like Staph and MRSA that a hospital environment breeds all on its own. I do not suffer the delusion of the germ “theory.” Our immune systems need to be exercised like the rest of our body. When we meet a pathogen our body immediately addresses it and creates antibodies…that is people who do not have a Harmacy of vaccines created with various foreign animal cell lines shot directly into their bloodstreams bypassing all their natural protective systems like their mouths and GI tracts, their skin, their lungs and other mucus membranes where alerts to their immune systems normally arise.

    I purposely didn’t put anything other than the Dr.’s video in here. I have done my research and I am not telling nor am I asking you to believe me. What I am asking is that our whole community do their own research into this issue so that it may bring us together in solidarity and truth instead of divide us in fear. I will leave you with a quote from James Baldwin,”Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Infinite Blessings of Peace, Love, Abundance, & Joy for all.