Washington has won the dubious distinction of being the state with the most parents opting not to have their children be vaccinated. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, more than 6 percent of Washington kindergarteners were missing one or more immunizations in the 2009-2010 school year, with the chicken pox vaccine the most commonly missed; the state is said to be experiencing an “epidemic of worry over vaccine safety.” But a new state law that went into effect in July places new requirements on parents who opt out of vaccinating their children and want to send them to public school:
[The new law] seeks to close a loophole that parents used to avoid providing proof of vaccinations to schools. Now, parents must meet with a medical provider, get a signed letter confirming that the consultation took place, and provide the note to child-care centers or schools.
In other states, parents can claim a “religious exemption” or a “philosophical exemption” to forego vaccinating a child. Claiming such can (in some states) involve no more than writing a letter stating why one’s religious or philosophical beliefs prohibit vaccinating a child. The new Washington law ups the ante considerably by requiring that parents have a formal consultation with a doctor or other medical provider and get a signed letter.
Dr. Jack Stephens, a pediatrician at The Everett Clinic in Washington, notes that those who choose not to vaccinate their children are not uneducated parents, as in the past:
“The world has changed,” said Dr. Jack Stephens, a pediatrician at The Everett Clinic. “It used to be the unimmunized child was the child of an economically disadvantaged family with poor access to health care.
“Nowadays, it’s usually well-educated parents of higher social status who do their own independent research and tell you what they’re willing to do.”
A parent quoted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer article notes that she’s concerned about a possible link between vaccines and autism. A purported link between vaccines or something in vaccines and autism indeed played a huge role in bringing “questions over the safety of vaccines… into the mainstream” in the late 1990s. But this link was based on what has been found to be fraudulent research by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, who has now been disbarred from practicing medicine in the UK. Wakefield’s now-retracted study linking autism to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine set off an international public health scare that led to a huge drop in vaccination rates in the UK, and an equally notable rise in cases of measles in Europe.
Reports of measles cases in the US have also been on the rise. Symptoms of measles, which is highly contagious, include fever, cough and a rash that spreads down from the scalp and through the body. For every 1,000 children who contract measles, one or two will die, says the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Parents who choose not to have a child vaccinated are taking risks with not only their child’s heath, but the health of their communities. Choosing not to vaccinate a child, or to “spread out” vaccinations, leads to a lower vaccination rate in a population. This in turn leads to lowered “herd immunity”: When a significant proportion of a population has been vaccinated against a disease, those who not been vaccinated (such as infants) have a measure of protection. But when overall vaccination rates are lower, herd immunity is compromised and more are at risk of contracting a disease like measles.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes that, according to Glen Nowak, a senior adviser with a specialty in immunizations and respiratory diseases for the CDC, three-quarters of parents in the US have at least one “question or concern” about vaccinations. No matter how many scientific studies are published that dispute a link, the speculation over vaccines somehow “contributing” to autism and other health issues seems to be in little danger of withering away. This is unfortunate, as vaccines can and do save lives, can and do protect children and adults against terrible infectious diseases that were the terror of previous generations.
As Dr. Stephens notes about the vaccine-autism theory, “People still believe it. Once the belief is out there, it takes on a life of its own. It becomes immortal.”
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