HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) – South Carolina parents are increasingly claiming religious exemptions from immunizations required by schools, according to data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. 

From the 2017 to 2021 academic year, the rate of children with medical exemptions remained the same. However, among the regions, as many as 3% of students claimed an exemption in 2021, with a statewide average of 1.5%. 

Among Horry County students, one in 50 claimed a religious exemption in 2021, up from .9% in 2017, while other counties in News13’s viewing area remained flat. 

For the 2015-16 academic year, .87% of students had a religious exemption. 

The jump can partially be attributed to an influx of misinformation that has escalated since the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines.

“I believe part of that is just a lot of fear and anxiety, especially around the pandemic, and a lot of new information coming and coming quickly, and I think it generated a lot of mistrust from the community and adults, and people making decisions on behalf of their children,” said Dr. Anna Cohen from the Grand Strand Medical Center.

Schools do not require students to have a COVID-19 vaccine, and those vaccines are not included in DHEC’s data.

While DHEC’s requirements for vaccinations can evolve, this year’s set includes hepatitis A, hepatitis B, varicella, and polio, along with diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, a Tdap booster and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella.

The Pee Dee region has the highest immunization rate in the state, according to DHEC’s data. Horry County, however, has been an exception. In 2017, 95.8% of children entered school fully vaccinated. That has fluctuated between 93.7% and 95.7% in the years since. It was 94.6% last year.

South Carolina lags behind the nation when it comes to each required vaccine, according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and in some cases has lost herd immunity to certain diseases. 

South Carolina has dropped below the herd immunity threshold for measures, which is considered at 92% to 94%. In South Carolina, 90.6% of people in the state are immunized against measles.

The state has also lost its herd immunity for diphtheria and pertussis, meaning the diseases can spread through the community.

When it comes to the combined seven-vaccine series, 68.3% of children have completed it by the age of two, compared to 70.5% nationally.

South Carolina does not have a “philosophical exemption” to vaccines, which leads parents to claim a religious exemption, according to Beth Sundstrom, an associate professor of communication and public health at the College of Charleston, and the communication director of the South Carolina Immunization Coalition.

Parents only need to sign a certificate to claim a religious exemption. No major religious denomination opposes vaccinations.

The state was gaining ground in increasing vaccination numbers, and then the pandemic hit.

“We are at risk of losing that progress and seeing more preventable disease outbreaks as a result of that,” Sundstrom said.

Examples of that have begun appearing nationwide, with polio found last month in New York City.

The coalition uses a decade of audience research and listens to parents’ concerns and needs to help shape its strategy to encourage vaccinations. Sundstrom said the group wants parents to learn more.

“I think it is really reasonable for parents to have concerns,” she said. “And so what I am hearing from parents is a lot of questions about vaccination.”

Cohen said she’s been asked about side effects. While there is still a lot of misinformation circling, she said most side effects are fatigue and soreness, but are minimal to the illnesses themselves, which can be deadly.

“It is really important to prevent rather than react to it and treat it, because not all of those effects can be short term,” Cohen said. 

Cohen said she has heard concerns about ingredients. She said each ingredient serves a purpose, and has hefty research behind it. 

She encourages seeking credible sources for information, which includes published research articles, and asking doctors questions about things they’ve heard. 

The hospital is seeing catchup, she said, after people delayed appointments due to the pandemic.

Conway Medical Center has not seen a slowdown in appointments, the hospital told News13.

In 2020, there were 5,513 immunization visits. Last year, it saw 5,864, and there have been 3,519 so far this year. 

Sundstrom said a coalition survey found that the majority of people have seen misinformation about vaccines on social media. The coalition is working to build confidence in immunizations and raise awareness of them. The message the group stresses, she said, is that every doctor visit is a vaccine visit.

News13 reached out to Horry County Schools for comment and did not hear back.