Owain Weinert, at age 8, hadn’t been eating breakfast and was sleeping 12 to 14 hours a night. For months, mysterious fevers came and went.
His mother took him to the pediatrician, who in turn sent them to a lab for a blood test. They then went to lunch, which Owain didn’t eat.
Shortly after they got home, the phone rang. The caller ID said it was Seattle Children’s oncology. Owain had leukemia.
“The oncologists were super confident,” Weinert said. He had a 95 percent chance of living. “But then the next thing they said was this would take his immune system away. If he got a cold, he could be re-hospitalized.”
Owain went through more than three years of chemo and other treatments. At first, Weinert worried about other kids with colds. Then she started reading about kids who hadn’t been vaccinated and realized he was at risk for contracting much worse than a cold. The more she thought about it, the more frustrated she got.
Owain was up to date on his shots, but that might not have protected him. Some types of chemo severely reduce the immune system, said Dr. Matthew Kronman of Seattle Children’s. Those treatments affect parts of the immune system that provide immunity after vaccines.
At Owain’s school, Loyal Heights Elementary in North Seattle, 10 percent of kindergartners weren’t fully vaccinated in the fall of 2012, when he was in the final year of chemo treatment. Most of those kids’ parents had submitted exemption forms citing a personal belief against vaccination. Washington state law requires those forms be signed by a health care professional.
For measles, 92 to 94 percent of students must be inoculated against the disease to protect those who have not been vaccinated. If fewer kids are vaccinated, the power of herd immunity diminishes.
In Seattle, only five of 69 public elementary schools met the threshold for measles immunity in 2012-2013, the last year immunization data was available.
That has cancer parents (as they refer to themselves) in the region worried about what would happen if the California measles outbreak spread here. Two cases have popped up in Grays Harbor on the Washington coast. Thirty-two people were infected with measles in Washington state last year. Typically there are three to five cases a year.
“As immunization levels have declined, we as a society have opened ourselves up to larger outbreaks of this kind,” Dr. Kronman said in an email.
“The tragedy, of course, is that this entire situation is readily and safely preventable through routine measles immunization,” he said. “Many parents have been misguided through bad information to believe that delaying or refusing measles immunization is a healthy choice for their children.”
MAP: Click on schools to see vaccination rates for King County 2013-2014. Not loading on mobile? Try this link.
Weinert has been talking with other frustrated cancer parents. Their concern extends beyond measles.
Kelly Forebaugh’s son Jackson was diagnosed with an extremely rare cancer when he was 15 months old. Years later, long after his treatment was over, he came down with whooping cough.
Jackson’s pediatrician had said he didn’t need to be vaccinated again, but she wonders if a booster would have helped.
“It looks like we’re losing the herd immunity; the scales have been tipped too far,” Forebaugh said.
Karen Fantozzi of Federal Way said she asked her 17-year-old son’s pediatrician if he needed a measles booster shot. He underwent a year of cancer treatment when he was 11. The pediatrician said he wouldn’t, but Fantozzi wasn’t convinced.
After all, when he was going through chemo, a test revealed that he wasn’t immune to chickenpox. “Why would I think you’re immune to measles?” Fantozzi said to her son this week.
Later, she said, “If he needs it, let’s get it for him. I don’t want to put his health at risk for a simple shot.”
In Seattle’s Sunset Hill neighborhood, Weinert became increasingly aware of what it meant not to vaccinate kids. A 2-year-old on her block came down with whooping cough – a disease far more dangerous in youngsters than adults.
“I thought, this is so crazy. Why are they opting out? Wake up. What’s wrong with you?” Weinert said.
But she knew partly where these parents were coming from.
When her two boys were babies, she didn’t follow the vaccine schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her sons were fully immunized by kindergarten, but Weinert staggered their immunizations so they wouldn’t get so many at once. She called it a gentler schedule.
Looking back, she said it was an easy position to take.
“I hadn’t dug into it because I wasn’t a cancer mom,” Weinert said. “I wasn’t so careful about the facts.”
She said that if she had known what she knows now about vulnerable populations, she would have followed the schedule.
“What would I say to myself?” she said. “‘You’re a person trained to do research – so do your research. If babies, older people and cancer patients are at risk, it’s our job to help protect them.’”
It was hard enough to watch her child go through the grueling cancer treatment without worrying about infectious diseases.
“They always feel like crap; they’re always throwing up; their hair is falling out,” she said. “Doctors tell you that if the temperature is in a particular range, check it every half hour. If it’s 101, drop what you’re doing and get to a hospital. You have to stay within a two-hour range of a hospital, because they’re concerned about infection from the immune system being so suppressed.”
The Weinerts owned eight thermometers and knew how to get to Seattle Children’s in 23 minutes. At night, Weinert kissed her son on the top of his head, to reduce the spread of germs.
“Those are for the things that are unpreventable,” she said. “That’s just life. Nothing we can do about it.”
Owain is 13 now, an eighth grader in the advanced program at Hamilton Middle School in North Seattle. He ended treatment in June 2013.
At home on Thursday evening, Owain played with his dog, Ellie (up to date on her shots, Weinert noted), and contemplated immunizations.
“I don’t think about the whole grand scheme of things, but when I do, it’s whoaaaa,” he said.
Last month, he was approved to update his shots.
His mom made sure he got them all.