by Amy Standen and Jon Brooks
Many Bay Area children are heading back to school this week, and in some of those schools kids are in more danger than ever of contracting preventable diseases because of parents who decline to vaccinate their children.
Last year, 7.8 percent of Marin County parents – a 1 percent increase from the previous year — opted for “personal belief exemptions,” which allow them to send their kids to school unvaccinated against diseases like measles, chicken pox and whooping cough.
Marin has the highest opt-out rate in the Bay Area, and one of the highest in the state.
In Santa Cruz, 9.6 percent of parents chose personal belief exemptions, compared with 2.8 percent statewide.
County officials say these opt-out rates bring some towns below the “herd immunity” threshold, at which a community can broadly be considered safe against a particular communicable disease.
“Between 85 and 95 percent of a community should be vaccinated against disease for us to consider ourselves safe as a community from an outbreak,” said Matt Willis, public health officer for Marin County.
In 2012-13, at Sausalito’s New Village School, only 26 percent of incoming kindergarteners arrived vaccinated – five out of 19 students.
“We now feel a concern that if there were a disease such as measles entering into that classroom, it would have an opportunity to spread and create an outbreak,” said Willis.
Willis said measles in particular is highly communicable and often carried back to a community by someone who has been traveling overseas.
Some pediatricians are pushing back.
Last year, Tamalpais Pediatrics, which cares for about 8,000 patients out of its Greenbrae and Novato clinics, told its patients that it would no longer treat children who have not been vaccinated with the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine by age 2.
“We decided this was a tinderbox,” said Tamalpais Pediatrics’ Dr. Nelson Branco. “We didn’t want measles transmitted in our waiting room.”
Branco said about 25 families decided to take their kids elsewhere.
Starting in January, a new state law will require that parents who decline vaccinations must first come in for a consultation with a medical professional.
In 2010, more Californians came down with whooping cough than in any year since 1947. Ten babies died.
What the research says
Many parents have opted out of vaccinations due to a belief that they are linked to autism, despite a strong scientific consensus that it is not the case. The phenomenon of opting out of vaccines gained momentum after a 1998 study implicating the measles mumps and rubella vaccine appeared in The Lancet medical journal. The journal retracted the paper in 2010 after its author, Andrew Wakefield, was found to have had significant financial conflicts of interest and to have committed ethical violations while conducting his research. In 2010, after he lost his medical license in Britain, he said, “I never made the claim at the time, nor do I still make the claim that MMR is a cause of autism.”
No other studies have found a link between vaccines and autism. In 2012, a study published in Nature found that the more advanced age of men who have children may be contributing to the surging rates of autism.
Some parents who have opted out have focused on an alleged connection between thimerosal, a preservative that has been used in vaccines, and autism. Multiple studies have debunked the link, however, and the substance has been eliminated from most vaccines in the U.S. for more than 10 years.
The issue of vaccinations has again made news recently after actress Jenny McCarthy, an outspoken proponent of the belief that they are linked to autism and an active campaigner against vaccines, was named a co-host on “The View.”
For a 2011 conversation with journalist Seth Mnookin, author of “The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy,” listen below.
Or watch Mnookin discuss the link between more affluent communities and vaccine opt-outs here…
If you still have questions, read 5 Things You Should Know About Vaccines on KQED’s State of Health blog.
And here’s KQED Public Radio’s Forum show segment on new efforts putting pressure on parents to vaccinate their children …