In a state seeing a resurgence of measles, just 9 percent of schools in Illinois have 100 percent of their students vaccinated against the measles, state data shows. And in Chicago and suburban Cook and Lake counties, there are 67 schools where less than 90 percent of their students have proof of vaccination.
This includes two Chicago private schools where less than 50 percent of the children are protected against this highly contagious disease. Four Chicago schools — two charter schools and two private schools — each enrolled more than 95 students who aren’t vaccinated.
The vaccination or an exemption is required for all school children, with experts saying at least 98 percent of students at each school should be protected against the measles. In Illinois, there are 514 schools where less than 95 percent of students have proof of vaccination.
“We should always be concerned” about a lack of vaccination, said Dr. Allison Bartlett, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. “Measles is a particularly good example where we have great scientific understanding of the importance of community protection; any schools where that is not the case puts all these individuals at their school and everyone they come in contact with at risk.”
The latest measles case in Illinois was reported last week. The individual who contracted the disease spent time in downtown Chicago and on the North Shore in Cook and Lake counties while contagious. Because of that case, WBEZ in its analysis of state vaccination data focused on schools in the city and those counties. Illinois is one of 15 states that have seen a combined 387 measles cases through the end of March this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This is the second largest number of cases reported in the U.S. since measles was eliminated in 2000. There are outbreaks — defined as three or more cases — in six jurisdictions, including New York City, the CDC reports. A county in suburban New York facing an outbreak recently banned unvaccinated children from public spaces.
Sixty-seven Chicago-area schools have fewer than 90 percent of students protected against measles*
* Illinois State Board of Education data as of October, 2018. Schools may have updated their data since then.
Measles are highly contagious and especially dangerous for children. It’s easily spread through direct contact or when the infected person coughs or sneezes. The symptoms include a rash that starts with the face and neck, fever and runny nose. Measles can lead to serious complications, including brain swelling and pneumonia.
Nearly 41,000 school children in Illinois have not been vaccinated, haven’t shown proof of vaccination or have an exemption. This covers students who simply didn’t comply or lack records, despite vaccination being a state requirement for all school children, as well as students who received exemptions from the state for religious or medical reasons. In addition, a federal law allows homeless students to enroll in school without submitting vaccination records.
Religious exemptions have increased in the last few years despite a 2015 state law that made it harder for families to make their case.
“A lot of the vaccinations that we [offer] have pork slab-based gelatin stabilizers,” said Dr. Aasim Padela, an emergency physician and director of the medicine and religion program at the University of Chicago. ”Both for the Muslim community, some of the Orthodox Jewish community and other communities, [parents] might not want their children to have vaccinations with pork slab components.”
At Muhammad University of Islam on Chicago’s South Side, only 10 percent of the students are protected against the measles, the rest — 147 students — aren’t vaccinated and have religious exemptions. The school administrators didn’t respond to repeated requests for comments.
Padela said aside from being difficult to find vaccines with other ingredients, a pro-vaccination message has not been formulated in a way that aligns with religious life.
In recent years, there’s also been an anti-vaccination movement that has falsely established links between the shots and autism. But in Chicago, some children simply don’t have their records or the money to get vaccinated. All schools in Illinois are required to exclude students who don’t turn in their vaccination records — but many don’t.
At the Barbara Sizemore Academy, a charter school in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, only 62 percent of students are protected against measles. The rest, 98 students, either have exemptions, aren’t vaccinated or didn’t bring their shot records.
Jocelyn Mills, the school principal, says the number is concerning but her hands are tied.
“Each child’s individual circumstance in their family is different,” she said, adding there are economic and social barriers that keep students from getting the shots or bringing in the paperwork.
Low-income families often move frequently, and it gets harder to keep track of important documents. Some families, she said, don’t have access to medical centers where they can get free care and some students don’t live with their parents or legal guardians.
Outside St. Agnes of Bohemia, a Catholic school on the Southwest Side, parents say vaccinations can get expensive, especially for people whose kids don’t qualify for public health insurance but can’t afford to pay private health care premiums.
“So people are caught up in the middle,” said St. Agnes parent Brenda Vega. “Instead of paying for the vaccine, some parents may choose to buy food for the week.”
At St. Agnes, 76 percent of students are vaccinated, state data shows. These numbers are based on student records that all schools are required to submit with the Illinois State Board of Education by mid-November.
But the Archdiocese of Chicago says the data is outdated. It says the number of protected students is actually higher because more students have turned in vaccination forms in recent months. Schools are supposed to exclude students who don’t have vaccination records or qualify for an exemption. Persistent noncompliance with any state mandate could impact a public school’s recognition status.
But excluding students is extremely difficult for school administrators to do, Mills said. “How do you close the door to 40 percent of the population, especially when you are also on the hook for attendance?”
Mills said she understands students’ safety comes first, “and we certainly want to be compliant, but in our neighborhood, safety means our children being also at school,” she said.
Instead of keeping students out of school, Mills and other parents say city and state officials should bring in more information and resources to the schools struggling to reach higher protection percentages.
Officials with the Chicago Department of Public Health say they connect families to the federally funded program Vaccines for Children, which provides low-cost or free vaccinations in five walk-in immunization clinics to eligible families. Other outreach initiatives include a mobile care van that visited 75 public schools and attended 30 back-to-school events last year.
In a statement, the officials said the recent outbreaks should serve as “important reminders that measles remains a public health threat.”