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Are parents flummoxed by recent measles outbreaks in California, Illinois, New York, and other states? With U.S. measles cases jumping 300 percent from 2013 to 2014, and another great leap backward likely this year, is behavior changing?
Some evangelical parents have opted out of vaccine use over concerns about safety and ethics, but so have many affluent seekers of organic foods. (All but two states allow for religious objections from immunizations, and 20 allow for “personal conscience” exemptions.) One health official told journalist Seth Mnookin that to find higher rates of unvaccinated kids he only had to “take out a map and put a pin wherever there’s a Whole Foods.”
Whole Foods started in Austin, Texas, the main city of Travis County, where 3,000 children are now exempt from vaccination mandates. That’s only two percent of all children in the county, but some private schools have double-digit exemptions. We wanted to hear why some parents vaccinate and others do not, so students in WORLD’s mid-career writing course went to ground zero, the Whole Foods flagship store just north of the river that runs through Austin.
We learned the Whole Foods pin comment is clever but exaggerated. At the market Elif Selvili, originally from Istanbul, said the position of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children is “ridiculous.” She chewed a piece of sushi and said she supports a modified schedule for children with “weaker constitutions,” but thought a pediatrician should determine the schedule.
Other Whole Food interviewees also supported vaccination. But at a playground near the Barton Springs Pool just south of the river, Dawn Swenson, 38, watched her two youngest children play on a replica fire truck and said she has no fears for her unvaccinated children: “That’s what we have immune systems for.” The mother of four decided not to vaccinate her first child 18 years ago when she learned about the ingredients in common vaccines: “As a young mother I didn’t want to give them injections with toxins. Vaccines have a lot of toxins in them.”
Ten feet away from the Swensons, Skylar Smith sat in a child safety swing. The 3-year-old with a butterfly painted on her face and thick glasses was born with tetralogy of Fallot, congenital hyperthyroidism, amblyopia, and asthma. A veteran of open heart surgery by the age of 1, she was too weak to receive all her whooping cough booster shots. When she went to nursery school, she caught the disease from a non-vaccinated student and coughed for a month.
Skylar’s mom, Leigh Anne Smith, 43, believes vaccinations should be mandatory: “It’s easy for someone who doesn’t have a child with health issues. But what people don’t understand is that it’s not just impacting your kid.” Smith understands mothers worry about what’s going into their children’s bodies but says misinformation and fear are leading people astray.
Valet parker Chris Berg, 28, prepared to take a dip in the spring-fed pool and said his beloved dog is up-to-date on immunizations “to prevent her from getting sick” but he opposes inoculating humans: “I don’t trust the drug companies.” He resists the uniformity that vaccine recommendations embody: “We’re expected to get a 9-to-5 job, have kids, and so on. But that’s just not the way for everybody.” Berg also dismisses vaccination to protect others: “People don’t get sick because they weren’t vaccinated. They get sick because they don’t approach life with the right energy.”
Energy levels seemed high several hundred yards away along Austin’s downtown Hike and Bike Trail. “I won’t take my baby anywhere that doesn’t publish vaccination records,” said Charla Reed, 35, who pushed her 7-month-old son in a jogging stroller: “This is a matter of public health.”
Reed’s friend Keely Redding, 38, also African-American, looked down at her 2-month-old and said, “When you look at that baby, well, that’s your heart. I saw polio in India and I will vaccinate.” Reed’s next stop was baby massage class.
Three miles north of the trail sits the Fiesta supermarket, which bustles with young families. Fatima Chahrazad, her hair hidden under a hijab, pushed through the automatic doors a cart laden with groceries and her two small daughters, Zinab and Hasnaa. Her husband Brahim walked next to her and said, “Everybody needs to have vaccines.” He made sure his own girls had their vaccines “on time” and spoke about growing up in Morocco where students got shots in the middle of classes. His community ostracized unvaccinated people, considering them “cavemen” who should live apart from others.
In Fiesta’s parking lot moms squinted in the sun and were careful not to cross in front of cars thumping Mexican polka. In Flor Ortiz’s cart, next to the peanut butter and a roll of paper towels, sat a car seat with contents hidden by a blanket. “He’s 10 days old,” Ortiz said in Spanish, and declared Jesús would be vaccinated: “That’s how he’ll be healthy.” She said schools should make parents prove their child is vaccinated. “If some kids aren’t vaccinated, they can get other kids sick.”
A mile away, picnickers dotted the park outside Austin’s Thinkery children’s museum. Sharply dressed Leah Frederick flicked a piece of sweet potato puree from her blazer and lightly scolded the toddler who aimed it there. A nurse in her late 20s who advises new mothers, she has seen the fear surrounding childhood vaccinations: “Parents come to me all the time, and they’re anti-gluten, anti-sugar, anti-everything. They want to eject all uncertainty, control all variables.” Frederick believes immunization opponents are well-intentioned but misguided, and wants them to consider how unvaccinated children can hurt others.
Nearby, Amanda Read and her husband Steven threw breadcrumbs at the mallard ducks paddling across the pond at Mueller Lake Park. Steven placed a sun hat on their 10-month-old daughter and lathered her with more sunscreen. The Reads follow their pediatrician’s recommendations to vaccinate their daughter and resent parents who don’t. “I recognize for some it’s a personal choice,” Amanda said. “But if you bring your personal choice into a public setting, putting others at risk … it’s not a choice, but a danger.”
Protecting life with vaccines
The 650 U.S. cases of measles last year and the big surge so far this year have resurrected the debate on whether vaccines are a moral obligation or a potential health risk to kids. That question surfaced after The Lancet, a leading British medical journal, published in 1998 a study by British doctor Andrew Wakefield that linked vaccines to autism. The Lancet recanted the study in 2010 after a medical panel concluded Wakefield had been dishonest and had violated basic research rules.
Today, doctors overwhelmingly say vaccines don’t pose a risk to healthy kids, but non-vaccination can be fatal to children who were not healthy enough to receive the shots. Most Americans also support vaccination, with only 9 percent calling them unsafe, according to a Pew Foundation poll.
Some evangelicals oppose vaccination because of autism concern but also because of an abortion connection pointed out by the Christian Medical & Dental Associations: Researchers in 1962 and 1966 used cell cultures derived from aborted babies to produce vaccines WI-38 and MRC-5. A CMDA statement by Dr. Gene Rudd noted, “A fresh supply of embryonic tissue is not required to sustain vaccine production. The cell cultures are self-propagating. Therefore, accepting these vaccines does not endorse or encourage abortions being done today.”
Rudd also noted concern that “pharmaceutical companies may seek new uses of aborted embryonic tissue. Some hope to discourage this by use of a boycott of vaccines. But unless many participate, a boycott will be futile. If a boycott were to attract large numbers, public health could be threatened by a shutdown of an industry already operating on small margins. A far better solution would be to enact legislation against unacceptable practices.”
Thoughtful pro-life Christians hold dueling views. For more anti-vaccination and pro-vaccination views, please see “Applying a Christian worldview to the vaccination issue.” My column, “Stirring up a hornet’s nest” notes factors leading to intense feelings. This is a discussion churches should have, and one that will be better if conducted with mutual respect and without name-calling. —M.O.
—With reporting by Maria Baer, James Bruce, Gaye Clark, Rebecca Gault, Heidi King, James Marroquin, Ryan McKinnon, Mark Moland, and Anna Poole