In four years of medical school, Illinois Director of Public Health Ngozi Ezike didn’t have to treat a single case of measles.
The World Health Organization certified the United States measles free in the year 2000. But after an outbreak in New York that started last year, the US came dangerously close to losing the designation.
There have been 1,250 measles cases in the country this year, which is the most in more than 25 years.
In Illinois, the percent of students who are immunized is still at the recommended rate. But, last year, the number of unvaccinated students went up, as did the number claiming a religious exemption, according to state data.
But Ezike wants people to know the vaccines work. In fact, she thinks one of the reasons for the increase in unvaccinated students is that they might work too well.
“They've become their own biggest enemy because they were so effective at eradicating diseases that were once commonplace that people have forgotten about the illness and severe sequelae that can come out of it.”
The state is working to make sure low income areas and other communities at risk have access to immunizations. Illinois kids under the Medicaid Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) are now eligible to get free vaccines as part of the federally funded Vaccines For Children program.
As for those religious exemptions, you can still get one in Illinois. Some states have eliminated that exemption in the past year. New York did so after some of the measles outbreaks were traced back to Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Schools that invoked the protections.
Illinois did make the process to get one more thorough in 2015. Now, Ezike says it takes a bit more than filling out paperwork.
“It also involves your medical provider to say that, 'Yes, I understand this person is invoking this religious exemption, but I have counseled them, again, on the issue around immunizations.'”
Several private, religious schools in northern Illinois have low immunization rates thanks to exemptions.
Notably, in Chicago, Muhammed University of Islam had just a 10% rate, according to state board of education data. Rockford Christian Schools and Harvest Christian Academy in Elgin were among six Illinois schools with 40 or more religious exemptions last year.
Both Harvest and Rockford Christian Schools declined interviews, but Rockford Christian Schools sent a statement reading:
“Rockford Christian Schools allows religious objection to immunizations. RCS strictly follows the guidelines of the Illinois Department of Public Health for the religious exemption. In addition, RCS encourages parents to have their children immunized and provides information to support vaccination.”
Other schools are complete outliers. Montessori Private Academy in Rockford had its immunization rate plummet over the last year. They went from having three students listed as unprotected and in noncompliance all the way to 78. And they only had one religious exemption.
So what happened? Their executive director Sue Haney-Bauer was just as surprised as anyone else when she saw it on the news. She says it isn’t an accurate portrait of the school’s real immunization rates.
Haney-Bauer wasn’t the executive director when they turned in those numbers last year, but she thinks she knows what happened. She says it was because they didn’t have a school nurse who knew how to handle the immunization reports.
“I am quite confident that we will be in the 90% rate again. It's a very complicated report. And if you don't have nursing staff, which many private schools do not, it could be quite confusing.”
Some parents were also confused by it. Haney-Bauer says it’s on the school.
“We need to get our protocol in order and make sure that, you know, the information that we're providing represents our school.”
While Illinois hasn’t eliminated religious exemptions, Ezike has said legislation to do that isn’t out of the question. And she says making sure immunization rates get as close to 100% as possible is crucial. This especially protects students who can’t get vaccinated because of a medical condition.