New York State’s repeal of religious exemptions for childhood immunizations in the face of recent outbreaks of diseases once thought almost eradicated, has been met with resistance by some religious groups and individuals. However Deputy Director of Public Health Sara Christensen says that has not been the case among the “Old Order” Groffdale Mennonite community here in Yates County.

The relatively high concentration of religious exemptions claimed by Mennonite parents for their children in Yates County recently attracted state and national media attention. Christensen says that Public Health staff visit the Mennonite one-room schoolhouses in Yates County every autumn to review immunization records. In 2018 in 29 schools with 690 children, 352 children had been exempted for religious reasons. In 2019, the number of schools has increased to 33 in Yates County, and the approximate 51% rate of exempted children is just slightly higher that the 46% to 50% rate seen over the last 10 years. That is not surprising given the tide of anti-immunization rumors spread on the internet and then by word of mouth.

Despite that, Christensen has found the school directors and parents to be generally receptive to the new regulation and the “herd immunity” it brings for children too young to be vaccinated or others for medical reasons. In just four hours on one day earlier this month, 48 children in Benton who had never before been vaccinated, received their first rounds. In recent scheduling, 150 children have been signed up, with about 115 yet to go. The majority of these children have no history of vaccination. While Public Health gathers the records and submits them to the state, it remains up to the individual school directors to be sure that all children attending are in compliance with the vaccination law.

Christensen, along with other counties’ public health officials are making special efforts to reach and educate the families on the benefits of immunizing all children, and alleviating their fears. Yates, Schuyler, Ontario, Wayne, and Seneca Counties’ Public Health have jointly submitted an article to The Flame, the Mennonite community’s own newspaper, and have scheduled open forum meetings with trusted doctors and nurse-midwives presenting the information in a manner tailored for the community’s concerns. Dr.Wayne Strouse spoke at one last month, and two more are scheduled in September and October; one in Dundee with three doctors coming from the University of Rochester, and one in Benton with those doctors plus Dr. Robert Ostrander and Nurse-Midwife Jennifer Scott.

Christensen says there are many questions asked at these sessions, some fear-based, but she enjoys helping to correct some of the common myths while informing the families of the real risks of disease. 

Just three counties away, there has been a measles outbreak in a  Mennonite community in Wyoming County. Far worse than other childhood diseases like chickenpox, measles presents a genuine risk of death or long-term complications.

“Measles is scary,” says Christensen, “and with contact between families, it could happen here — the risk is here.” 

Public Health also relies on the good work done by many pro-vaccination advocates among the Mennonites.  Given their limited transportation, Christensen and Immunization Program Coordinator Kristen Wagner are also visiting individual families to answer questions and vaccinate children at home.

“It’s a lot of extra work, and we’re very busy,” says Christensen, “but it’s great because six months from now, we’ll have 150 kids fully vaccinated who weren’t before.”