When the outbreaks occur, they’ll start in California

I may have been deluding myself when I talked about 2009 shaping up to be a bad year for antivaccinationists. It turns out that the antivaccine movement is succeeding.

That’s right, a cadre of upper middle class, scientifically illiterate parents, either full of the arrogance of ignorance or frightened by leaders of the antivaccine movement, such as J.B. Handley, Barbara Loe Fisher, Jenny McCarthy, or the rest of the crew at the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism, are succeeding in endangering your children. Although the U.K. got a head start in bringing back the measles and mumps, thanks to Andrew Wakefield’s falsified research bought and paid for by trial lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers back in 1998, which sparked a scare over the MMR vaccine that has not yet abated. Here in the U.S., reinvigorated by the obnoxiously bubble-brained purveyor of “Indigo” woo, who since her child Evan was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, has become the face of the antivaccine proquackery propaganda group Generation Rescue, the antivaccine movement has managed to become better funded and more visible than ever, so much so that the U.S. could well be at the verge of going where the U.K. has already gone, into the territory of endemic vaccine-preventable illnesses once previously thought eradicated, such as Hib and measles. Contrary to what antivaccine advocates claim, these are not benign diseases, and they are preventable by vaccines.

It’s only a matter of time before large outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease occur, and when they occur, most likely they will start in California:

A rising number of California parents are choosing to send their children to kindergarten without routine vaccinations, putting hundreds of elementary schools in the state at risk for outbreaks of childhood diseases eradicated in the U.S. years ago.

Exemptions from vaccines — which allow children to enroll in public and private schools without state-mandated shots — have more than doubled since 1997, according to a Times analysis of state data obtained last week.

The rise in unvaccinated children appears to be driven by affluent parents choosing not to immunize. Many do so because they fear the shots could trigger autism, a concern widely discredited in medical research.

This is exactly the situation in the U.K. Affluent moms, never having seen the diseases against which vaccines would protect their children if they were simply to allow them, decide that they are not in any danger, confident in their delusion that they those sorts of diseases couldn’t possibly affect their children. Oh, no. They’re good parents and have a more than enough money to provide their children all the good things in life and all the best medical care, not like those unfortunate poor people. Either clueless about the concept of herd immunity or, if they’ve heard of it, denying it, they convince themselves that vaccines are both dangerous but at the same time as 100% effective, the later claim being how they delude themselves into believing that their precious unvaccinated babies aren’t endangering everyone else. But herd immunity requires that approximately 90% of the population be vaccinated, the specific percentage depending upon the disease and the vaccine. When the percentage vaccinated falls below that number the chances of outbreaks increase, becoming higher the lower the percentage of vaccinated falls. Unfortunately, this is already started happening as more and more of these upper middle class parents seek various religious or “philosophical” exemptions. Indeed, antivaccine activists are actively campaigning for these laws and teaching parents how to use them, even if they are not of a religion that opposes vaccination. The results are predictable: More outbreaks occur in states with lax exemption laws.

One thing that this story reports, also, is that the number of unvaccinated kindergartners because of exemptions in California is not uniform. There are clusters where the percentage of unvaccinated children is very, very high. Not surprisingly, at the top of the list are several Waldorf schools, one of which has a nearly 82% exemption rate. A lot of Santa Monica schools pop up, which makes me wonder if pediatrician to the stars’ children Dr. Jay Gordon is having a malign influence. In any case, under the false mantra of “empowerment” woo-loving, antivaccine parents flock to these schools:

At Ocean Charter School in Del Rey, near Marina del Rey, 40% of kindergartners entering school last fall and 58% entering the previous year were exempted from vaccines, the highest rates in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Administrators at the school said the numbers did not surprise them. The nontraditional curriculum, they said, draws well-educated parents who tend to be skeptical of mainstream beliefs.

“They question traditional knowledge and feel empowered to make their own decisions for their families, not deferring to traditional wisdom,” said Assistant Director Kristy Mack-Fett.

Some parents at the school, which opened in 2004, said they struggled between what they believed was healthiest for their children and the risk that choice might create for others.

At least some parents do struggle with that question. They really do. In that, they’re unlike the leaders of the antivaccine movement, most of whom ooze a self-righteous, smug sense of entitlement. Although they will deny it vociferously, they don’t care one whit about anyone else’s children but their own; just read some of their discussion boards if you don’t believe me. The parents who do struggle with the question aren’t the ones who are leading the antivaccine movement; they’re the ones who are being duped by the movement. At some level, they still understand that their choice is potentially endangering others and have to find ways to deny it. When outbreaks come and some of these parents’ children are injured or even die, they will feel horrible, but will they ever manage to acknowledge their own culpability? Most likely not. The denial reflex in antivaccinationists is legendary.

Los Angeles, it turns out, however, is probably not the worst in California. Sonoma County probably is:

Whether it’s a decision of the well-informed, non-traditional, alternative or paranoid, vaccinations are not considered a must-do by many North Bay parents.

Long gone are the days when vaccinating infants and toddlers prior to kindergarten is done as a matter of course and without question. Especially in western Sonoma County.

A study conducted by the Los Angeles Times reveals that the North Bay, and Sonoma County in particular, is a hot bed of anti-vaccine sentiment. Of the 13 schools in the state with the highest percentage of kindergartners with exemptions from vaccination requirements, three are in Sebastopol. Of the 50 schools with the highest rates of exemptions, six are in Sonoma County and two in Marin.

There is not much drop-off after that: of the 255 schools with the highest exemption rates, 34 — 13.3 percent — are in Sonoma and its neighboring counties.

Unfortunately, studies don’t matter. Study after study have failed to find a detectable association between vaccination and autism or mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be in vaccines and autism. The antivaccine movement marches on. Parents keep saying things like this:

Other parents said they feared autism and side effects more than the diseases.

“Is it life-threatening to get the measles . . . or is he potentially going to get a life-threatening reaction by getting the vaccination?” asked Sarah Bjorklund. She vaccinated her two school-age children on schedule but delayed shots for her youngest son. “I think you have to weigh what is the benefit of the vaccination versus the risk.”

The problem, of course, is that parents like Bjorklund have a ridiculously skewed view of the risks and benefits of vaccines. The antivaccine movement tells them that vaccines are dangerous, that they cause autism, that they cause large numbers of severe reactions, while also telling them that they don’t protect against the diseases they’re designed to combat. When scientifically illiterate parents like Bjorkland are fed a diet of misinformation and lies, they don’t know enough to distinguish science from pseudoscience. Is it any wonder they come to the wrong conclusion about the risk-benefit ratio of vaccines?

Science doesn’t matter, of course. Even fraud doesn’t matter to the antivaccine movement. Their hero Andrew Wakefield was revealed to be a scientific fraud, they launched a counterattack that involved playing Rupert Murdoch hating dupe Keith Olbermann for a fool and getting him to attack Brian Deer, the journalist who uncovered Wakefield’s misdeeds; set up a website proclaiming “We support Dr. Andrew Wakefield‘; and publicized Wakefield’s tortured attempt to file a complaint against Brian Deer. Meanwhile, vaccine discussion boards were filled with parents blaming big pharma for a massive conspiracy to “discredit” Wakefield.

There’s one other thing these articles demonstrate once again, namely the tight association between antivaccine views and belief in “alternative” medicine:

A mom at Sunridge Charter School in Sebastopol, where parents of 76 percent of kindergartners obtained exemptions from vaccines, said she has no concern that her daughter, who was immunized, will suffer among peers who are largely unvaccinated

Parents at Sunridge are more conscious and wary of traditional western medical practices but do not look down on her for her decision, she said. She requested that her name not be used.

Good luck with that, given that no vaccine is 100% effective. I also find it telling that this woman claims that other parents don’t “look down on her” for her decision, but then didn’t want her name to be used.

The optimist in me likes to think that eventually science will win out, that eventually the steady drumbeat of studies that fail to find a link between vaccines and autism will have an effect. The pessimist in me expects outbreaks to begin soon. A lot of them, beginning in California.