When a parent won’t abide by the understanding behind a non-medical exemption to school vaccine mandates

As I write this, I’m kind of beat.

The reason for this is simple. Traveling sucks the energy out of me, and I just got back from almost four days in Houston for the Society of Surgical Oncology (SSO) meeting. Yes, I was a mere dozen (at most) miles from that Heart of Darkness known as the Burzynski Clinic for a few days, and I didn’t even succumb to the temptation to catch a cab out there and take a selfie with the Burzynski Clinic in the background. Part of the reason was that it would just be more expense than it’s worth. The other part of the reason is that it would be a bit hard to explain to a cabbie why I wanted to do that. Either way, I didn’t see it as being the least bit practical to rent a car when I didn’t even know the city and was planning on attending most of the conference anyway.

Be that as it may, when I’m this beat I don’t feel like taking on anything too hard today. Yeah, I’m slumming. Such is life sometimes. This will also be shorter than the usual Orac post. (That’s probably a good thing.) I’ll try to do something more sophisticated tomorrow. Fortunately for me (maybe), I’m still a little annoyed at a story that appeared in the local media here the other day, while I was still in Houston. Basically, it’s the story of a mother in one of the wealthier suburbs of the Detroit area who, well, take a guess from the title of the story: Chickenpox: Mom furious after school sends son home:

A Birmingham mother is furious after her sixth-grade son was sent home from class today because he’s not fully vaccinated against chickenpox.

One of Michael Donovan’s classmates is among three students in Birmingham Public Schools who is infected.

“I wasn’t vaccinated, and I don’t think it’s fair that I can’t go to school,” Michael, 11, said after his mother, Sarah, was called to the school to pick him up.

Leaving the school, she said she was “beyond not happy,” referring to a district spokeswoman’s comment earlier this week that some parents were not happy with the decision to exclude unvaccinated children from schools with confirmed chickenpox cases. Neither school officials nor health officials would say whether those students had been vaccinated, citing privacy concerns.

As the story notes, chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV). It’s also highly contagious, spread through the air or touching objects objects with the virus on it. Chickenpox is usually not deadly, but it can cause serious complications. Generally, it forms a blister-like rash, itching, fever, and fatigue. As the CDC notes, before the vaccine, around four million people a year got chickenpox, with 10,600 a year hospitalized and 100 to 150 people dying as a result of the disease. Complications include dehydration, pneumonia, encephalitis, bacterial infections of the skin and soft tissues (particularly group A streptococcus), sepsis, and even toxic shock syndrome. Then there’s the issue of shingles, where the virus persists in the nerve roots, to reemerge in adulthood, usually in middle or old age, to cause a painful syndrome involving blistering and open sores along the major nerve involved.

Fortunately, the vaccine is 98% effective if two doses are given. If the child has only had one dose, it’s more like more like 85% effective.

In any case, Sarah Donovan made the decision not to vaccinate her child, and now she doesn’t want to accept the consequences. Part of the deal if you don’t vaccinate is that your child can be kept out of school if cases of the disease show up in school. It’s to protect your child from your own irresponsible decision by keeping him away from a potential source of infection. She should have expected this. It’s not as though the State of Michigan makes a secret of it. Indeed, its “Dear Parent/Guardian” letter to parents seeking a non-medical waiver for the school vaccine requirement states quite plainly:

Based on the public health code, a child without either an up-to-date immunization record, a certified nonmedical waiver form or a physician signed medical waiver form can be excluded from school/childcare.

The nonmedical vaccine waiver form, which Ms. Donovan must have signed, states explicitly:

A child who has been exempted from a vaccination is considered susceptible to the disease or diseases for which the vaccination offers protection. The child may be subject to exclusion from the school or program, if the local and/or state public health authority advises exclusion as a disease control measure.

Which is exactly what happened:

On Wednesday, Oakland County health officials and Birmingham Public Schools alerted parents about three confirmed cases of chickenpox in three schools in the district.

That day, they recommended parents of unvaccinated children keep those children at home until they were sure they had not been infected.

On Thursday, health officials grew more concerned after realizing that some unvaccinated students had “significant” contact with some of the infected students.

The school then told parents that unvaccinated children were not to return to school until April 14 — just after spring break and long enough that any new cases would have been detected.

It turns out that Donovan partially vaccinated her two older children, but apparently became antivaccine when Michael’s older sister started exhibiting signs of autism. Yes, sadly, Donovan is another example of how the myth that vaccines cause autism has turned a parent antivaccine. Sure, Donovan also uses the “health freedom” argument and complains that people will know that she didn’t vaccinate her son against chickenpox because he is being excluded from school, but that’s the risk you take when you don’t vaccinate. Also, if she didn’t want more than just some of the kids and their parents at the school her son attends to know that she doesn’t vaccinate, she shouldn’t have decided to make a big deal out of it to the point where she agreed to be interviewed by the health and science reporter from one of the two largest local newspapers.

Overall, what I detect in Donovan is an overwhelming sense of entitlement. She doesn’t want to vaccinate her children and signs a form that says she understands that the school can keep them home if local health officials deem it advisable to exclude unvaccinated children to protect them and for infection control. Then, when there are actually cases of a vaccine-preventable disease at the school that her son attends, and suddenly she’s outraged that the health authorities have the temerity to send her son home. As one commenter noted:

The mom was happy with her choice until it had consequences. I also find it comical that she’s complaining about the school violating her son’s privacy, yet she had no problem having his name, school, and vaccination status in the newspaper.

I was actually surprised at the tenor of the comments. Usually, articles like that are flooded with flying monkeys dropping antivaccine poo on the comment thread. In this case, there were quite a few people with pro-science viewpoints taking Mrs. Donovan to task for her sense of entitlement and her unfortunate decision not to vaccinate her children.


  • “How ‘beyond not happy’ would little Mikey feel if he contracted chickenpox from a classmate? Give me a break lady.”
  • “No, the mom is being ridiculous. She is mad at the school system for keeping her child healthy. The school system takes no position on her vaccine beliefs. But at the same time the school refuses to actively and needlessly expose at-risk children to a serious illness.”
  • “…we also know a lot more about disease and process then when “mom and dad were growing up”. Autism, allergies and cancer existed then too. Now we know more about it so it is diagnosed far more. Except back then little Sally or Joey wasn’t called Austistic they were labelled as special or different.”
  • “Vaccinations have a pretty long, positive history of improving the health of the nation and the world. ‘Blind Faith’ in the medical community has nothing to do with it. Self centered publicity hound parents with an over-estimation of their importance and intelligence seem to be more at play here.”

I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe there is some hope after all.