Froma Harrop: The rich and their anti-vaccine quacks
California parents are refusing to vaccinate their kindergartners at twice the rate of seven years ago. So the Los Angeles Times reports. The result has been the return of measles and other serious diseases that can lead to paralysis, birth defects and death. The state is now suffering a whooping cough epidemic — it’s amazing to say — in the year 2015.
But the real shocker in the story is this: The rise in “personal belief exemptions” — a loophole in the law requiring parents to have their children vaccinated — is highest in rich coastal and mountain areas. For example, an astounding 23 percent of students at the Santa Cruz Montessori obtained belief exemptions and are not vaccinated.
These prosperous communities are heavily influenced by the organic-natural foods culture — about which there is much good to say. However, the alternative-lifestyle package often includes a hostility to mainstream science based largely on myth, lies and susceptibility to hucksters exploiting fear of modernity.
As such, these generally progressive “anti-vaxxers,” for all their educated airs, bear a resemblance to religious conservatives who reject the theory of evolution. Both groups regard the scientific authorities as just another untrustworthy source — and find charlatans with degrees to contradict them.
The suspicion of vaccination got its biggest boost from junk science spread by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, he published a paper in the medical journal The Lancet holding that autism may be caused by the common vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella.
Wakefield’s work was subsequently found to be scientific quackery. Lawyers suing vaccine-makers funded some of it. The Lancet retracted the paper, and Britain has stripped Wakefield of his right to practice medicine there.
The damage, however, has not been undone. Measles, which in 2000 had virtually disappeared in this country, is back. And it is highly infectious.
Public health officials went on high alert after a college student with measles proceeded to travel on Bay Area Rapid Transit trains, exposing thousands. The unvaccinated student, enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, had apparently picked up the disease while traveling through Asia.
Measles kills two out of every 1,000 children who get it, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In pregnant women, it causes premature and low-weight births.
Immunization need not reach 100 percent to keep a population safe from widespread outbreaks. But for such easily transmitted diseases as measles and whooping cough, it must be high, at least 92 percent.
The parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated are incomprehensible. A mother of three unvaccinated children attending public school in Orange County told an LA Times reporter that the family believes in staying healthy “from the inside out.” That means taking vitamins and supplements and avoiding genetically modified foods. Thus, vaccination not needed. Good Lord.
But perhaps more unfathomable are the three-quarters of the parents at the fancy Santa Cruz Montessori school who did obtain shots for their little ones and kept them there. Why would they want their children in a school where poor-country illnesses may threaten pregnant women and infants who visit?
There’s also the quaint notion of shared responsibility for the public health. Such arguments get drowned in the nasty propaganda of anti-vaccination groups with neutral names. We speak of the National Vaccine Information Center, which the American Academy of Pediatrics says abuses science and, through its message, puts others at risk.
These “personal belief exemptions” are largely baloney. If they can’t be limited, they should be ended. Parents refusing to protect their own children are bad enough. Letting them expose others to serious and easily preventable disease is outrageous.