In order to receive an education in Arkansas, students are required to be vaccinated against certain communicable diseases unless they meet exemption criteria set by state health organizations.

Cindy Mitchell, Fort Smith Public Schools lead nurse, wrote Wednesday in an email to the Times Record the district follows the Arkansas State Board of Health regulations for its vaccination policies.

Children attending any of the district’s campuses are required to have immunizations for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR); diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTP); the DTP booster, Tdap; polio; Hepatitis A and B; varicella; and meningococcal. Preschool students are also required to have pneumococcal and Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type B) vaccinations.

Mitchell said families are allowed to apply for immunization exemption through the state Department of Health due to medical, religious or philosophical reasons. These will be granted only if specific criteria is met, and students who receive exemptions may be excluded from school if an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease occurs.

There are 135 students in the district with an exemption for at least one required immunization.

“The exclusion occurs at the instruction of the Arkansas Department of Health and is specific to the disease outbreak regarding the amount of time excluded from school,” Mitchell said. “This would occur to limit further transmission to unvaccinated students, thus limiting the spread of disease.”

Mitchell said the state sets vaccination standards and the district simply enforces the requirement. She said proper immunizations have protected against disease for many years, but parents should speak to their child’s doctor about the issue.

“We encourage parents to immunize when asked but respect that the choice is theirs to make,” Mitchell said.

Vaccines in higher ed

Full-time students and those living on campus at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith are also required to provide proof they received the MMR vaccine, are immune, have received a state exemption or birth prior to 1957 before they can be admitted.

Letters from the Department of Health granting immunity and authorized exemption and official state or federal identification for students born before Jan. 1, 1957, must be presented to the UAFS records office in order to waive the immunization requirements. A hold will be placed on a student’s record until the proper documents are received.

There is also a risk of contracting meningococcal disease between those who “live in close quarters,” according to an email from UAFS Interim Director of Communications Rachel Putman. The university recommends that all students living on campus receive the vaccine.

The Arkansas Colleges of Health Education and Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine’s vaccination policies are slightly different, because of the differences in interaction between medical students and those studying for a medical-related master’s degree, said ARCOM Dean Rance McClain.

ARCOM, however, requires MMR, varicella, Hepatitis B, Tdap and polio immunizations.

McClain said vaccination exemption requests would be examined on a case-by-case basis. ARCOM, however, shares similar policy with the organizations overseeing medical education in the country and local hospitals and clinics where students serve during their time at the school.

“If we were to allow a student to forego a vaccination, we cannot guarantee them a hospital they are scheduled to rotate with will allow them to participate,” McClain wrote in an email to the Times Record. “Since I have joined ARCOM, we have not had any such requests.”

The college follows standard medical education by teaching the process of vaccine development and effectiveness, McClain said. It derives its messages from large-population research and clinical trials.

For those who may be concerned about chemicals such as formaldehyde being present in vaccines, McClain said he tells people research shows no evidence of harm from these compounds due to the small amounts present.

McClain doesn’t want people to just take his word for it, though.

“I encourage everyone to do their research and base their personal decisions on the evidence provided by reputable organizations and supported by clinical research,” McClain said.