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A sample of views on vaccination from ground zero of the Whole Foods subculture

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(Krieg Barrie)

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Pediatrician Amanda Porro prepares to administer a measles vaccination to Sophie Barquin, 4, as her mother Gabrielle holds her during a visit to the Miami Children’s Hospital on Jan. 28.

Krieg Barrie
Associated Press/Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast

Andrew Wakefield

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

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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  • SKCarrolltonTX
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:53 pm

    What seems to be missed in this debate is the fact that we live in a global world and people are traveling so much.  You can confront and shame parents that choose not to vaccinate their children for whatever reason, but you cannot stop those people that cross our border illegally, and many times they are not vaccinated, from spreading their diseases.  The children that crossed illegally in TX and AZ that have been shipped throughout the US and enrolled in our public schools are overlooked at a probable cause of spreading diseases that have been "irradiated" through the use of vaccines.  Also, I remember reading that the outbreak at Disney was caused by tourists from outside the US.  How is forcing all parents to vaccinate their children going to stop this? 

  • mr_mr
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:53 pm

    This article is not informative or well written on the subject. It makes me wonder how many people that give a strong opinion either way really dig into the subject and look at the facts. You dont hear any news on killer disease unless they have a vaccine to go with it. It bothers me that  the CDC has such a strong influence over a few cases when in comparison more people die from abortions, heart disease, cancer, texting and driving,...yet we dont mandate healthy eating and morality. All you heard about is get the Flu vaccination, to a point where they would fire you from work..then a couple months later all went silent because it didnt work for what was going around. Have we looked into how many people died from the vaccination than people died from what it prevented. Yes I know of someone who has died of a vaccination. most are reported here. Am I anti But I do believe the parents should have a choice. Its their conscious. What if their child died of the polli and was not vaccinated. They would forever feel guilty they didnt  vaccinate. What if their child died from getting the flu vaccination. They would forever feel guilty they got the vaccination. Its a very personal decision. One that should only be left upon the shoulders of the parents.  When we were looking into a vaccination and was unconformable with the ingredients we knew there was one made that we felt more comfortable with. But we were told they only sell them in Europe and could not get them here in the US. When I asked why they said it cost to much to make. Really! Its hard for me to think its not a little bit of a money thing. When there are some vaccination that dont have all the heavy metals and other junk in them, but they are to expensive to make.  I would pay the higher price. Then you read all these articles about the measles outbreak and they all give a strong edge that its because of the un vaccinated..that everyone MUST be vaccinated. But yet no one really knows for sure how many were actually vaccinated and un vaccinated. But Ive wondered why people who have all their children vaccinated are afraid of the un vaccinated child. Shouldnt they be protected? 

  • momof 13
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:53 pm

    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."  I would argue that it DOES endorse and encourage the abortion industry that supplies these precious babies bodies for profit. Accepting those vaccines makes us complicit in the abortion of THOSE TWO CHILDREN. Do their lives mean nothing??? 

  • darlenee
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:53 pm

    I appreciate your article on vaccination. I have thought a lot about it and read articles on non-vaccination. I have come to the conclusion that vaccinations are a good idea. As a Christian, I should care about others and I know that while taking care of your immune system is what we should do, there are many out there who have immune system problems, not all caused by a person's lack of care for themselves! Protecting our children has to be a parent's priority, but when would God have us put aside our own priorities for that of the Holy Spirit's nudging to have concern for others? I speak as a parent and grandparent. Thanks for jumping into the fray! 

  • JulieK
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:53 pm

    With regard to unvaccinated kids (like they're walking around carrying every germ there is and ready to explode like some giant germ bomb) being a danger to immunocompromised people....Those people need to know that there is much danger to them from the recently vaccinated as well.  The reason they discontinued the oral polio vaccine in this country is because it was causing polio in some people.  Oddly enough, they still use this vaccine all over the underdeveloped world... 

  • Janice G's picture
    Janice G
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:53 pm

    When my son was younger and had asthma, he was treated with steroids to help inflammation in his lungs. I was advised that if he got chickenpox while on steroids that he could have the illness infect internally and possibly cause death. So it would have been nice to know others were vaccinated. We did get all vaccinations at the proper time.

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:53 pm

    Totally an experience based comment here but if my family is any indication, yes, we can be much healthier investing in our immune systems ! Vaccination is a rather lacking post to lean on if a healthy family is what you're after. I've found it much more satisfying to actively pursue health, spending my minutes in activity, study and a healthy lifestyle rather than sitting in waiting rooms. There is certainly a place for doctors that is needful and I'm grateful for them when we have an issue I can't resolve, which has been a handful of times in 18 years of parenting.

  • CNY_Farmer
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:53 pm

    " she has no fears for her unvaccinated children: "That's what we have immune systems for.""I have often wondered: if we put as much money into researching and protecting our immune systems as we have put into vaccinations, would the total health result be better than it is now with vaccinations?