Arlo goes to Waldorf School. Milos Batavaljic / Getty Images
In the midst of the measles epidemic that stretched from Portland to King County, lawmakers from Washington introduced a bill to complete personal exemptions from vaccines that are otherwise needed to attend day care, as well as public and private schools. This bill was introduced by R. Paul Harris of Clark County, where at least 35 people, almost all non-vaccinated, were diagnosed with measles – and this applies only to vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella.
Currently, parents can choose their children from receiving these vaccines if they have religious or philosophical observations, and the number of people seeking these exceptions for years is increasing. In Clark County, for example, the rate of vaccination for kindergartens ranged from 91.4 percent in 2005 to 76.5 percent in 2018.
The demographics of people seeking these exceptions have also changed. Vaccines were once contradictory to a small number of religious groups. However, today, almost no religions oppose vaccines. Instead, the complaints are more often coming from secular people who face anti-vax skepticism or in pop culture (for example, Dr. Oz) or online.
For example, high-ranking liberal communities, such as Wasson Island and Waldorf, have lower vaccination rates than the national average. For example, in the Waldorf School in the famous progressive city of Asheville, North Carolina, nearly 70 percent of parents refuse to vaccinate their children, and almost a quarter of school children have contracted chicken, also a disease that can be averted last year.
According to doctors and public health experts, science behind vaccines has long been solved: vaccines are one of the safest ways to prevent contagious diseases and have significantly reduced mortality rates around the world. And yet, many people remain unconvinced. Larry Cook, for example, a self-described "natural-law advocate", runs the StopMandatoryVaccination.com website that publishes unreliable stories about children who have been injured or even killed by vaccines.
Cook lives in California, a country that completed personal exemptions in 2015, but he is involved in the fight against vaccine exemptions in the state of Washington. This week, he began collecting $ 6,000 to buy Facebook-focused advertising targeting women in the state of Washington.
"The goal here is to help parents begin to question the safety and efficacy of vaccines, which in turn will help them understand why vaccine mandates can be problematic for their children," the website of fundraising. "We want these parents who are on the fence to become ACTIVITIES in the state of Washington". After just one day, the collection of funds was almost half way to full funding.
Cook, who says he was born in Washington, has vocal allies in the area. Bernadette Pyer, head of election reports Washington and the mother of a 15-year-old son, whom she says suffer from a "vaccine injury," has devoted much of her life in recent years to fighting compulsory vaccination. The vaccines, she says, are being imposed by drug companies to make money. "I know that vaccines are designed to protect children from infection, but they are pharmaceutical products made by the same opioid companies," he told me in a telephone conversation.
In response to the proposed legislation, Paier circulated e-mails to lawmakers, the health department, and the media about what she perceived as the danger of vaccines and how the media misrepresented this last occurrence of measles.
"These measles cases, most of which are now fully recovering, are used to intimidate the public into thinking that they and their children are in serious danger of being publicly exposed to an infection that the vast majority of Americans are benign", the letter read. As evidence, she cites doctors for an informed consent, an advocacy organization that says Kathy Hennessy, a parent of a child in autism and the head of vaccination in Washington, "has deep links with pseudoscience."
"Their taking measles is benign is disturbing," says Hennessey. And medical experts support this: While it is true that most people with measles will not have complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the 20 children who make measles will receive serious complications such as pneumonia and one in 1,000 children will develop encephalitis, brain swelling that can lead to permanent brain damage. Two out of 1,000 children with measles will die of it.
However, Payer does not trust the CDC. In her letter, she quoted "CDC whistleblower" William Thompson, a scientist who was introduced to the poorly-produced 2016 film Vaxxed: from cover to disaster. The film shows happy, healthy children who, according to their parents, got sick or were disabled after receiving vaccines – sometimes overnight.
During the making of the film, the alleged informant did not realize that the whistle blows. Instead, Thompson was unnoticed by anti-vax agent Brian Hooker, while discussing data released in the CDC study 2004 on vaccines and autism. It looks like a smoking gun, but Thompson himself rejected the film and its conclusions.
"I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continued to save countless lives," he said. "I would never suggest that every parent will avoid vaccination of children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are far outstripped by their individual and social benefits."
However, anti-vax advocates routinely quoting Thompson as evidence of some sort of plot for the CDC. Pyer also claims that some children are "vulnerable to a vaccine injury." This, I have said, is "well established as a fact."
Not, however, according to Douglas Diekema, a professor of pediatrics and bioethics at the Medical School in Washington and a doctor in the emergency department at Seattle Children. "We know that if you had an allergic reaction to the first vaccine, you do not need to get a second," he said. But, however, there is no plausible evidence that the allergic reaction to any vaccine causes autism, despite hundreds of studies seeking a relationship. A blockbuster newspaper, allegedly a causal link, by Andrew Wakefield, was so intertwined with methodological errors that were later withdrawn, and no one could replicate it.
"Researchers from many countries have published studies that contain tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of children, and there is nothing," Diekema says. "And these are not people paid by pharmaceutical companies. As a pediatrician, I very much resent the idea that my colleagues and I would be in this plot."
Diekema often sees skeptics of a vaccine in her work in the Seattle Children. Parents will bring a child with a dirty cut and are afraid that tetanus will lead to autism or other "vaccine injuries". When that happens, Diekema describes what tetanus – an incurable disease that can result in death – can do to their children. This, he says, is usually, but not always, an effective way of communicating with parents. Research also supports this: According to the 2015 study, simply telling people who are infectious disease experts are rarely changing their minds. But if you describe what the disease is doing and show the pictures of children with measles, people are more likely to move.
The reality is, although we know that vaccines do not cause autism, we do not know exactly what it is doing. Diekema says there is evidence that there is a genetic component, but the research is not definite. We do not even know if the rate of autism has increased. There may be more children in the spectrum of autism than they were in the previous decades, as many skeptics of vaccines have claimed, but it is also possible that doctors improve themselves to diagnose it.
As for the proposal of the legislature to end all exceptions to the vaccine, Diekema says there are mixed feelings. When it comes to measles, he says, yes, no doubt. This disease is so much contagious that all personal exceptions should end. "When a child goes to school with measles, you will suddenly see dozens of cases." But, he adds, completing the personal exemption also has the potential to create a reaction.
"I worry that if you remove the exemption for parents who are strongly opposed, you can frustrate the community, and then you can find yourself in an even worse position," he says. "But at least we should be harder to get those exceptions." At the moment, all that is needed to get an exemption is one doctor visit, which will inform you about the risks and will give you a note. Diekema believes this should be an annual requirement, instead. "It would not be easier to quit the vaccines that need to be vaccinated."
If the legislature does not adopt this bill, rates of vaccination are likely to increase, as they have in California, as the state has completed personal exemptions. However, it is unlikely to convince Bernadette Payer or her allies. As we have seen over and over again, from the battles over climate change to GMO vaccines, the data rarely, if any, are enough to encourage people whose heads are already being compiled.