Instead of vaccinating her children for chickenpox, Kimberly Christensen chose the old fashioned way to immunize them – sending her kids to hang out with infected children.
“Our friends knew of someone and called us,” she said. “So we went over and the kids shared lollipops.”
Her kids did get chickenpox. “It was a long month," she said.
But Christensen is not an “anti-vaccinator,” she told me adamantly. “One of my biggest frustrations is that most people think you’re either pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine, and there is no middle ground,” she said.
Her decision is not uncommon in North Seattle, where Christensen lives. According to state data obtained by KUOW, many people in this well-educated, wealthier part of the city omit some vaccines and introduce others more slowly than health officials recommend.
It’s a trend reflected nationwide, said Paul Throne of the state Office of Immunization and Child Profile.
“They have confidence interpreting data for themselves,” Throne said of these higher income, better educated parents. “A physician’s recommendation may carry no greater weight than their friend’s recommendation.”
About 58 percent of Seattle schools have an opt-out rate higher than the state’s average. Two non-traditional private schools topped the city’s opt-out list: At Seattle Waldorf School and Bright Water School (also a Waldorf school), 44 percent of students last year were not fully vaccinated according to schedule. Measles and polio vaccines were most commonly waived.
“I do think there’s a link between families who are drawn to our educational philosophy and a real commitment to a holistic approach to health,” said Tracy Bennett, the head of school at Seattle Waldorf.
“These are not only highly educated but highly thoughtful and thinking," she said, parents who would "give much deeper thought to why you would choose to immunize or not immunize your child.”
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Washington state made it harder for parents to not immunize their children in 2008 by requiring families submit an exemption form signed by a doctor, physician's assistant or nurse practitioner to the school. At the time, 7.6 percent of students weren’t fully vaccinated. Now, 4.6 percent statewide forgo vaccines.
Throne said the requirement to submit a doctor’s letter led to the decline – immunized or not, parents had to see a doctor.
Seattle Public Schools did not submit its vaccine data last year; technical difficulties apparently prevented the district from meeting that legislative mandate. But during the previous school year, 15 percent of students at Pathfinder K-8, an alternative school in West Seattle, were not vaccinated.
At Thornton Creek, a high-demand alternative school in View Ridge, 12 percent of all students were not fully vaccinated.
At Green Lake Elementary, 11 percent of students had opted out of one or more vaccines. And at Loyal Heights, just north of Ballard, 10 percent of students were not fully immunized.
At the Seattle public schools with the highest opt-out rates, polio is the vaccine most often dismissed. But Throne said that may be a fluke, and that parents more typically forego measles or whooping cough vaccines.
The more students resistant to a virus, the lower the chance a vulnerable kid will come into contact with an infectious classmate. That’s called herd immunity.
Take measles, for example. About 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.
Of 69 Seattle public elementary schools in 2012-2013, only five met the herd immunity threshold for measles.
“The parents who take this chance don’t realize how serious these diseases can be,” Throne said.
Washington state weathered a pertussis outbreak in 2012 after parents started opting out of the Tdap vaccine. About 2,500 cases were reported that year – the highest number since the early 1940s, when the vaccine was introduced. Most affected were babies 3 months and younger.
An inquiry on the Green Lake Moms listserv turned up half a dozen moms who said they created their kids’ vaccination schedules based on their own research.
Julia Marks, whose 2-year-old daughter will be fully vaccinated by kindergarten, said she chose an alternate schedule because “too many vaccines are given at once or in combinations with vaccines that are not compatible or too harsh to be given all at once.”
“New mothers are so nervous about doing the right thing,” she said later by phone. “That’s what I really appreciated about our pediatrician. She laid it out and said if you’re going to do anything this year, do the flu shot.”
Said another mom, “We’ve skipped a couple of vaccines for the time being (polio, for example).”
A third mother said she still wonders whether vaccines were linked to autism, even though it has been proven that the doctor behind that claim presented fraudulent research: “We are godparents of an autistic child that the parents swear there was a big change in after one of the rounds of immunizations.”
Public health officials say parents have wrongly connected the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine with autism; they say the vaccine is given around the time that autism begins to manifest itself.
Laura Kang, a Phinney Ridge mom and math analyst, was among those who responded to my email saying she vaccinates her children. After looking at the state data, she said she was frustrated.
“This is a community responsibility,” Kang said when we spoke later.
“I have a 6-month-old. She can’t be vaccinated for some viruses even if she wanted to be. She is vulnerable to all this illness that other kids can bring,” she said. “It makes me angry.”
Kang, whose children will likely attend Daniel Bagley Elementary, was aghast that so many parents there had not submitted paperwork saying if their kids had gotten their shots. At Daniel Bagley during the 2012-2013 school year, the immunization status for one third of the students was unknown.
That category of students – called out-of-compliance – is most prevalent at south end schools. At Wing Luke, Dearborn Park and Roxhill elementary schools, up to half of those students’ immunization status was unknown in 2012-2013.
(Again, because of last year’s technical problems, the immunization status for all Seattle Public Schools students is unknown. The district did not respond to multiple requests for updated data.)
Back in Wallingford, Kimberly Christensen said she and her husband, a software engineer, didn’t want to subject her kids to a cocktail of vaccines – even though scientists say babies can withstand far more than the schedule prescribes.
“My kids were exclusively breastfed, not in a daycare situation, robust healthy kids who are not going to be exposed to a lot of germs,” she said.
“It is those parents’ responsibility to vaccinate their own children if they want them to be protected from a disease,” Christensen said, “and not my responsibility to vaccinate my children according to their schedule – but according to what I think is healthiest for my children.”
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