More Alaska parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children, according to a study released Monday by state epidemiologists.
According to the Alaska Childhood Understanding Behaviors Survey, the percentage of mothers who said they had delayed or refused shots for their children increased nearly 10 percent between 2009 and 2011, from 23.8 percent to 33.2 percent.
It's a trajectory that worries public health officials.
"Our immunization rates are going down," said Margaret Young, a state public health specialist who helped to design the survey. "The state is trying to find out why."
Alaska ranked 39th in the nation for immunization coverage among toddler-aged children, according to the 2011 National Immunization Survey.
The study illuminates who isn't vaccinating in Alaska and why.
It was designed to ask a random sampling of mothers of 3-year-old Alaska children whether they had "ever delayed or decided not to get vaccine shots or immunizations."
Parents who said yes were termed "vaccine hesitant."
In the year 2011, more than half of the respondents who answered that they were “vaccine hesitant” said they thought too many shots were given at once. Of the vaccine hesitant respondents from that year, 43.8 percent said shots were given too early and 28 percent said they worried shots would do more harm than good.
Other respondents cited religious beliefs, not knowing it was time to vaccinate and concerns about ingredients in vaccines or a history of bad reactions to them.
The study wasn't designed to tell whether any of the vaccine-hesitant parents ever did eventually immunize their children or what specific vaccines they objected to, Young said.
The study also found that mothers who said their doctor knew their child well were more likely to vaccinate.
Vaccines are a hotly controversial issue nationwide, Young said. Health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, say they have been exhaustively studied and are essential for protecting infants and children from a host of preventable diseases that can hospitalize or kill. Critics have questioned their safety and effectiveness.
Anchorage pediatrician Dr. Monique Karaganis said that about 95 percent of patients at her solo practice, Polar Pediatrics, vaccinate. Karaganis said she believes that vaccination is safe and effective but not all of her parents agree, at least initially.
"(To be my patient) you don't have to vaccinate your child but you have to be willing to read my information," she said. "You have to be willing to talk to me about vaccines."
The study, which analyzed data from 2009-2011, found that white, college-educated mothers over the age of 35 were most likely to report that they had delayed or skipped immunizations for their children. There's no consensus as to why that is the case, Young said.
The highest rates of vaccine hesitancy were found in the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak and Prince William Sound region at 42.8 percent and in the Interior, with a rate of 31.6 percent.
In the Anchorage and Mat-Su region, 26.3 percent of respondents reported vaccine hesitancy.
The lowest rate of vaccine hesitancy was in Northern Alaska, with 17.3 percent.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at email@example.com or 257-4344.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported data on parent attitudes toward vaccination from the Alaska Childhood Understanding Behaviors Survey. In the year 2011, more than half of the respondents who answered that they were “vaccine hesitant” said they thought too many shots were given at once. Of the vaccine hesitant respondents from that year, 43.8 percent said shots were given too early and 28 percent said they worried shots would do more harm than good.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS