Ohio Department of Health data shows the number of religious and philosophical exemptions nearly quadrupled in Ohio between 1998 and 2008, though that figure still represents fewer than 1 in 100 children.
All states require children to be immunized for school. All but Mississippi and West Virginia allow religious exemptions, and Ohio and 19 others also permit exemptions for personal reasons.
A 2007 Associated Press analysis of states and federal data found many states were seeing increases in the rate of religious exemptions claimed for kindergartners.
Doctors say they're concerned that more exemptions could lead to outbreaks of preventable illnesses among children who haven't had the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine.
"It doesn't take a lot of unvaccinated kids to start a little pocket of infection and epidemic," said Dr. Patricia Manning-Courtney, medical director of the Kelly O'Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
Health officials haven't done a good job of explaining vaccine risks, which leaves parents with doubts, she said.
For years, scientists have debunked the theory of a link between children's vaccines and autism.
A special federal court upheld that view Thursday, turning down families in three cases who contended that a combination of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine plus other shots triggered autism. Special Master Denise Vowell of the U.S. Court of Claims concluded the families, who had hoped to win compensation, were "victims of bad science."
That won't necessarily stop the small but vocal movement of anti-vaccine parents that includes actress Jenny McCarthy, whose son has autism.
Also among the naysayers are Jim and Jennifer Hansel of suburban Cincinnati, who decided not to get their 7-year-old son vaccinated after their older son developed autism.
The older boy, now 11, began showing signs of autism within a month of his measles-mumps-rubella vaccine when he was one year old, said Jennifer Hansel, who blames the vaccine for the developmental disability.
She says her younger son will be vaccinated before he goes to college, once his immune system is more developed.
"Would I rather have my child get measles than push him into autism? Yeah," she said. "I'm definitely much more worried about autism than measles."
Dr. Bernadine Healy, the former director of the National Institutes of Health, has suggested that vaccines may affect some children more than others, though health officials haven't determined what might make some more susceptible.
"Are vaccines safe? It's like asking me if aspirin is safe," she said. "It's safe most of the time, but in certain people it may not be."
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