Whooping cough, measles and other preventable illnesses are making a comeback, thanks to an anti-vaccine movement whose members might surprise you.
According to a much-cited recent report by The Hollywood Reporter, "the Westside Waldorf School and Children's Creative Workshop are at a serious risk for whooping cough, an illness currently classified as an epidemic in California. Numerous educational facilities in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice and other affluent Westside communities also are registering an elevated danger potential for whooping cough, as well as for diphtheria, measles, mumps and rubella."
According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, "The anti-vaccination movement is centered along California's wealthy coastal and mountain communities; the highest numbers of personal-belief exemptions are among children who attend private schools.
"These aren't parents who don't have access to information — they're true believers who can't be convinced," the article said.
The Atlantic says the sheer number of parents who have filed exceptions to having current vaccinations — as many as 60 to 70 percent in some schools — puts the local vaccination rate "as low as that of Chad or South Sudan. Unlike in Santa Monica, however, parents in South Sudan have trouble getting their children vaccinated because of an ongoing civil war."
Dr. Paul A. Offitt, professor of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, summarizes the controversy surrounding vaccinations in a Wall Street Journal column. In the 1990s, he notes, media fanned worries that new vaccines could be damaging children, including thoughts that measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine might cause autism or that the preservative Thimerosal could trigger developmental delays.
"Then those stories disappeared. One reason was that study after study showed that these concerns were ill-founded. Another was that the famous 1998 report claiming to show a link between vaccinations and autism was retracted by The Lancet, the medical journal that had published it. The study was not only spectacularly wrong, as more than a dozen studies have shown, but also fraudulent. The author, British surgeon Andrew Wakefield, has since been stripped of his medical license. But the damage was done," Offitt wrote.
An article in the Missourian directly tackles the Thimerosal question: "The anti-vaccine movement hangs its hat mostly on claims that Thimerosal, a preservative that had been added to vaccines for more than 70 years — it has been removed from most childhood vaccines in the United States in an effort to mollify anti-vaccine crusaders — can cause autism. Over the past 15 years or more, studies at a number of major medical institutions have concluded there is no link between autism and exposure to Thimerosal."
One of the concerns raised by public health officials is what the exemptions do to "herd immunity." The Washington Post explained it this way: "The threshold varies by disease, but as a rule of thumb about 90-95 percent of a population needs to be immune (either through vaccines or prior exposure to disease) in order to produce what is known as 'herd immunity.' What is herd immunity, exactly? When most people in a population have immunity to a disease, an infected person is less likely to bump into a susceptible person (someone with no immunity) — so the disease doesn't readily spread," particularly among the most vulnerable, such as infants.
California lawmakers have already started to tackle the issue of exemptions. As the Washington Post noted, a new law took effect in January that requires parents to submit a "signed statement from a healthcare provider stating that the parent has received information about the risks of forgoing immunization."
A number of high-profile individuals have spoken out against the recommendations for having children vaccinated, including, most recently, Donald Trump.
And the National Vaccine Information Center, which considers vaccinations dangerous, has called for removal of vaccine safety oversight from the Department of Health and Human Services.
"It is a conflict of interest for DHHS to be in charge of vaccine safety and also license vaccines, and take money from drug companies to fast track vaccines, and partner with drug companies to develop and share profits from vaccine sales, and make national vaccine policies that get turned into state vaccine laws, while also deciding which children will and will not get a vaccine injury compensation award. That is too much power for one federal agency," founder Barbara Loe Fisher said in a news release.