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REALITY CHECK: WNC has some of highest religious exemption rates in state for vaccinations

Western North Carolina has some of the highest religious exemption rates in the state (Photo: WLOS)

State law requires people to be immunized against certain diseases, but people can also get a religious exemption from the vaccines.

Only four counties have a religious exemption rate for Kindergartners higher than 3.0%. Those four are all in Western North Carolina. According to the state Department of Health and Human Services Transylvania County has the highest religious exemption rate for kindergartners in the state at 6.2%. Buncombe County is second highest at 4.9%. You can see every county's rate here:

A smaller percentage of people cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons.

"She's not up to date on her vaccines like normal health children," explained Jackie Bennison, who is the mother of a four-year-old named Aubrey, "She wasn't able to receive certain vaccines due to being on the cardio pulmonary bypass machine."

Aubrey has something called Heterotaxy. She has a heart defect, has had three open heart surgeries, and a pacemaker installed.

"Watching your daughter go through heart surgery and also taking care of other children that you have at home, and being torn in between the two," Jackie explained how tough it was.

News13 first told Aubrey's story in 2014.

"The challenges we face are just constant," said her father back then.

Because of Aubrey's medical complications they rely on the community to prevent the spread of diseases.

"Community immunity," Jackie calls it.

"The more people who are immunized the greater the chance that we're going to be protected," Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, the Buncombe County Health and Human Services Medical Director.

"That's herd immunity, and that protects children, or people who cannot receive vaccines against these preventable diseases, or viruses," said Jackie.

When that shield is weakened diseases can spread. In the summer of 2017, 79 people in Minnesota contracted measles. The state blamed the outbreak on a lack of immunization. Measles is highly contagious and can be fatal.

"That's the one that keeps me up at night," said Dr. Mullendore.

Mullendore tries to educate people about vaccinations. She says it's not just a decision for your child. It's also a decision affecting kids like Aubrey.

"The higher the number of people who are unvaccinated the weaker that shield is, the more likelihood of an outbreak," said Dr. Mullendore.

There is currently a whooping cough outbreak in Henderson County. Their Health Director says the majority of people with pertussis received the vaccine, but Steven Smith says their symptoms could be worse without the shot.

"For those well defined groups, pertussis can have serious health consequences particularly for infants, those six months or younger, it can be fatal," said Smith, the Henderson County Health Director.

Smith added pregnant women are also more susceptible to danger from pertussis. While Henderson County is working to stop the outbreak, Buncombe County wants to address this long term trend: A growing number of kids with religious exemptions.

"We're trying to to fight it, and turn it around," said Dr. Mullendore.

"I think that's alarming," said Jackie, when told that Buncombe County has one of the highest religious exemption rates in the state.

The state checks students' immunization entering kindergarten and seventh grade. Kids need their shots to attend school unless they have a medical, or religious exemtpion. State law says someone can get a religious exemtpion, "Upon submission of a written statement of the bona fide religious beliefs and opposition to the immunization requirements, the person may attend the college, university, school or facility without presenting a certificate of immunization."

Mullendore says it's too easy.

"You could write it on a napkin and turn it in," she said.

In the future Jackie Bennison may need to seek a medical exemption before her daughter enters Kindergarten. Presently, she seeks the community's help.

"Their healthy children that can be vaccinated will save the lives of those can't," she said.

Dr. Mullendore says parents are going to do what they think is best for their children. When people read about vaccinations, she asks people to scrutinize the source, especially on social media.

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