A cadre of anti-vaccination parents at San Geronimo Valley Elementary School have remained steadfast in their medical decisions despite a ten-year high of measles cases across California and one of the top three statewide counts in the nation.
In 2010, the school ranked third in Marin County for rates of unvaccinated kindergarteners, with 19 of 30 children, or 63 percent, receiving personal belief exemptions for measles (MMR) and whooping cough (dTaP) inoculations.
According to state health officials, the risk of an outbreak is high in areas with a large population of unvaccinated children. Twenty-two of the 28 cases reported in California were unvaccinated or had unknown vaccination status. Sixteen of them had reported international travel within 21 days of the symptoms.
Although Marin County has no confirmed cases of the measles this year, it already ranks well above the statewide 2.33 percent average of unvaccinated children, with 7.15 percent. Its rate is also well within the 5 to 10 percent herd immunity threshold, a range that predicts higher vulnerability for an outbreak.
San Geronimo Valley has a rate that is 58 percent higher than the upper spectrum of the range for likely outbreaks.
At least in part, state health officials attribute the decade-long spike in the number of unvaccinated children in California to parents’ fears of the adverse side effects associated with the drugs. Rates of vaccinations declined dramatically after widespread media coverage of a since retracted and debunked 1998 article about the link between autism and MMR.
Jeff Dimond, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the San Geronimo Valley figure was an unusually large percentage. “That’s more of a sociological issue than a public health issue,” he said. “Obviously, you’ve got somebody in the area that’s a strong opinion leader.”
Although Lagunitas School District encourages all students to receive vaccinations before starting school, Principal Laura Shain said that it’s important to respect parents’ rights to choose.
“They’re advocates for their own viewpoints on the health of their children,” she said. “We make sure that the families that file personal beliefs exemptions are doing that with an educated mind and that it is not used because time ran out.”
Shain added that the school sends out literature reminding parents of vaccination information and required dates, and takes great precaution because of the unusually high numbers of unvaccinated students. It works closely with the Marin County Department of Health to report all cases of infectious disease and it requires that unvaccinated children stay away from school during outbreaks.
“It’s always going to be a concern when you have this many students in one place that are not immunized,” she said. “While it’s a concern that our children attend school regularly, our primary concern is that they are healthy.”
In 2011, nine out of 20 San Geronimo Valley kindergarteners, or 45 percent, filed for measles and whooping cough exemptions. Eleven out of the 54 Lagunitas Elementary seventh and eighth graders (20.4 percent), who were required to receive the dTaP this year, forwent the vaccine.
One San Geronimo Valley mother who wished to remain anonymous said she did not vaccinate her second grade and pre-school children because she feared the possibility of illness and complications resulting from vaccines.
“I don’t trust big pharma, so that’s the main problem. It’s unfortunate because some of [the vaccines] might be really important to have but because there’s such a strong level of distrust between corporate pharmaceuticals and people unfortunately people just shun all the vaccines, which includes me,” she said. “And I don’t think measles is life-threatening most of the time either, unless there are complications—which happens in immune-compromised people. So it doesn’t concern me.”
She also expressed concern that the vaccines would damage rather than benefit her children’s immune systems.
“I think it weakens the immune system in the end to have viruses, whether or not they have formaldehyde in them, injected into you,” she said. “If you get them yourself, then it can strengthen the immune system.”
Marlo Kindermann, who has a fifth grader at San Geronimo, said that her son was inoculated against her wishes by his father, but that if it had been her decision she would not have vaccinated him.
“For things like measles or rubella or chicken pox, I would not choose to vaccinate personally because that’s what we have immune systems for,” she said. “We’re doing damage to our children to deny them the opportunity to develop immune systems, particularly in light of what’s going on in the world and all the toxins we’re exposed to.”
University of California, San Francisco Immunology Professor Dr. Jeffrey Cox believes these theories are based on pseudoscience and asserts that both measles and whooping cough are life-threatening.
“[Parents opting out of vaccines] is the dumbest thing that’s happened in the last 20 years,” he said. “There’s nothing that’s saved more lives than vaccines.”
Cox added that the causal link between autism and vaccines has been debunked and that the toxins that children are exposed to in the average household are more dangerous than those present in vaccines. To the claim that vaccines compromise the immune system, Cox argued that vaccines are designed to produce antibodies that strengthen rather than weaken the immune system. The suggestion that children’s immune systems, especially those of infants, should be left to fend off diseases naturally is not only dangerous but also cruel, he said.
“If someone had a kid and they got whooping cough, it would be horrible,” Cox said. “It takes a long time for our bodies to fight it off. To say that someone should go through that, it’s really mean. I would never risk my kid’s health in that way.”