Ithaca, N.Y. — Despite the efforts of local officials, vaccination rates for some Ithaca schools are significantly lower than both the New York State and national averages.

These rates are of heightened importance now because the United States is in the middle of  a measles outbreak involving more than 100 people in 15 states, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Low immunization rates represent a possible danger both to the children who aren’t vaccinated and to their classmates. (The “research” linking vaccines to autism has been widely and comprehensively discredited.)

How at risk is Ithaca? There are no reported cases here, but state statistics show that some Ithaca area schools have vaccination rates for measles as low as 72 percent — compared to the average rate of 95 percent for the state at large.

The 95 percent figure is key, because it’s the rate at which an “effective herd immunity” is established to prevent the spread of a disease like measles, says Theresa Lyczko, spokesperson of the Tompkins County Health Department.

“We’re aware that there are pockets of areas in Tompkins County where there’s a lower vaccination rate than is desirable,” Lyczko said.

“We really want to see at least 95% … We are always urging parents to follow the schedule for vaccination for their children.”

The national rate of MMR vaccination — which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella — is 92 percent, according to the CDC.

Local school vaccination rates

Here are the Ithaca schools with measles vaccination rates below 95 percent in 2013-14, the most recent year for which data was available from the state:

— Beverly J. Martin: 93.7 percent.

— Fall Creek Elementary: 84.4 percent.

— Ithaca Waldorf School: 72 percent.

— Lehman Alternative School: 83.4 percent.

— Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School of Ithaca: 91.6 percent.

— North Spencer Christian Academy: 91.7 percent.

— New Roots Charter School: 88.9 percent.

Outside of Ithaca, only the MacCormick Secure Center in Brooktondale (92.7 percent) and the Fingerlakes Residential Center (94 percent) had immunization rates below 95 percent, according to our survey of the data.

The Ithaca City School District has an immunization rate of about 95 percent, according to the OpenNewYork.ny.gov numbers.

Why are vaccine rates in Ithaca so low?

The “anti-vax” movement has drawn national attention, particularly in affluent sections of California because of an “alarming measles outbreak” centered in that state, according to Yahoo! News.

As was reported by the LA Times in a story titled, “Rich, educated and stupid parents are driving the vaccination crisis:”

“In Los Angeles County, the rise in personal belief exemptions is most prominent in wealthy coastal and mountain communities, The Times analysis shows. “

The more than 150 schools with exemption rates of 8% or higher for at least one vaccine were located in census tracts where the incomes averaged $94,500 — nearly 60% higher than the county median.”

A story published today in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle highlighted Tompkins County and Yates County as the counties in NY with exceptionally low vaccination rates.

Like the LA Times story, the D&C tied college-educated affluence — perhaps paradoxically — with scientifically backward and wrongheaded thought.

Here’s what the D&C wrote of Ithaca, which it called “another story altogether” when it comes to anti-vax sentiment:

“Ithaca, home to Cornell University and a population dotted with independent thinkers and neo-hippies, is another story altogether.

While a large majority of students in that city’s public system are fully vaccinated, several schools have unimmunized rates approaching 15 percent — among the highest of any public schools in the state. …

Some of the reluctance to vaccinate, in Ithaca and similar enclaves of well-educated contrarians around the country, stems from a suspicion — completely discounted by medical experts and public health officials — that vaccines are linked to autism or other illnesses.”

That squares with both larger trends in the country and the observations of local health officials.

“It turns out to be the most educated” who don’t get vaccinations for their children, says Lyczko, of the county’s health department.

“If you read the national media, particularly in California, they cite educated people who decided that they don’t want their children vaccinated, they think they’re protecting their children and so they feel they’d rather have them not vaccinated.”

That, Lyczko said, is undoubtedly the wrong approach. The science is unambiguous that parents should vaccinate their kids, both for their safety and for that of their peers.

What’s being done about it locally?

The county health department has long been undertaking serious and constant efforts to combat misconceptions about vaccinations and ensure that parents are informed, according to Lyczko.

This fall, officials showed a movie at Cinemapolis called “Invisible Threat” and invited a well-practice infectious disease specialist to answer questions.

“We’re addressing it in different ways,” Lyczko says.

Other efforts have included talks at local children’s stores, “so people can come in an environment where people feel comfortable,” and routine work with local physicians to educate parents, Lyczko says.

“It’s constant education,” Lyczko says. “There are new parents all the time.”

More info

See related: 9 things everybody should know about measles

See related: What anti-vax parents get wrong about personal liberty

See related: Fighting the Anti-Vax Movement With Lawsuits


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.