Anti-vaxxers vs. reality

A movement as smart as the birther brigade puts us all at risk.

Maybe they don’t know what they’re messing with, these parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids. Because if they understood the possible complications of a disease like measles—including deafness, brain damage or death—or even heard someone describe the agony of a normal case of measles, they wouldn’t take the chance. And perhaps because measles, mumps, whooping cough and other preventable illnesses haven’t been so prevalent for a while—thanks to widespread immunization—some parents seem think the danger somehow isn’t real.

So we are having to relearn, the hard way, what folks a generation ago understood well: that public health is a shared responsibility. “They wanted to take care of their children, but also everyone else’s children. I think we’ve lost that a little bit,” says Catherine Flores Martin, director of the California Immunization Coalition.

We’ve lost it, as evidenced by the dropping vaccination rates at public schools over the last decade, driven by parents who—because of bad information and the same of kind of social- sorting weirdness that gives us birthers and “rolling coal”—believe that the vaccines are somehow more dangerous than diseases they prevent. We’ve lost it, as seen in the entirely predictable outbreaks of those diseases following the “opt-out” fad. The Disneyland measles being the most recent, most headline-grabbing example.

But so what if vaccination rates are low at your kid’s school? As long as he has his shots, no problem, right?

Also, sadly, not true. “Even if your kids are completely up to date, they are at an increased risk” when the kids around them are not vaccinated, says Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases for UC Davis Health System. And the danger is higher for babies too young to be vaccinated, and kids who have any kind of health issue that compromises their immune system. That’s because “herd immunity” only works when the vaccination rate, to take measles as an example, is up around 95 percent.

That’s why California state Senator Richard Pan, who is a pediatrician, wants to let parents know if vaccination rates are dipping too low at their schools.

“I believe parents should know what the vaccination rates are at their school, so they can protect their children,” says Pan.

Earlier legislation by Pan required parents who want to opt out of vaccinating their kids to first talk with a physician about the risks. The rate of these “personal belief exemptions” has dropped 20 percent in the year since the law went into effect.

Pan’s new idea would require schools to send information to all parents letting them know the vaccination rate at their school, along with some basis of comparison, like the statewide average.

That’s not the way it works at most schools. In the Sacramento City Unified School District, administrators will typically communicate with parents if there is a problem, like the potential of an infectious disease at a particular school. But district spokesman Gabe Ross says, “Currently, there isn’t specific district policy requiring schools to alert parents of a particularly low vaccination rate.”

Parents can find that information now, if they know where to look. One place to check is the website For example, in Sacramento city schools, Alice Birney Elementary, a Waldorf-inspired public school, is listed in the “most vulnerable” category with a vaccine opt-out rate of 32 percent and only 66 percent of kindergartners “up to date” on their shots. At Caleb Greenwood Elementary, the up-to-date rate is just 77 percent, putting it in the “more vulnerable” category. But Ethel I. Baker Elementary is in the “safest” category, with 95.7 percent of kids vaccinated. Spot the pattern?

Pan’s legislation could make it a lot easier for parents to get vaccination rates. The details are still being worked out, but he thinks the vaccination rate could be sent home with the regular enrollment materials. Bites thinks it should be posted on the schoolhouse door, with the word “Warning” in big bold letters when necessary.

But then what? What are parents supposed to do with this information?

“It’s a tool. If parents are looking at a school, and they are looking at test scores or some other ratings, then immunization rates may be another deciding factor,” says Flores Martin.

And what if your kid is already enrolled at a school, and you find out that school is an anti-vaxxer hotbed?

“Parents may want to talk to their school, to try and raise the vaccination rate,” said Pan. “Or they may want to talk to their school board. Or they may want to transfer their student to another school.”

Only you can decide the right option for your family. Bites is not exactly shy about confrontation, but the thought of tangling with anti-vaxxer parents at the next PTA meeting is pretty scary. Hopefully Nibbles can make new friends.