Backlash builds on North Coast amid measles outbreak
For the sake of her 3-year-old, leukemia-stricken daughter, Yve Duran is appealing to her Sebastopol neighbors to reconsider their views against vaccinating their children against measles.
When two cases of measles were documented last month in Marin County, Duran took her younger daughter, Elliot, from preschool on the campus of a Sebastopol elementary school. Now she worries that Elliot - who is vaccinated but is more vulnerable due to her treatment for leukemia - will contract measles, one of the most contagious of all infectious diseases, in a park or at a grocery store. She sometimes puts a mask over the girl’s mouth and nose when they go out.
“There are children (like Elliot) in the community who are relying on the people around them to keep them safe,” Duran said. “It’s very real to me.”
Duran’s plea comes as the debate over state-mandated vaccinations reaches into presidential politics and into homes throughout Sonoma County and the greater North Coast. It has prompted a growing campaign - including new legislation - in favor of childhood vaccinations that health officials say are a critical public safety tool.
The measles outbreak that began in mid-December at Disneyland and has reached 107 cases statewide, spreading as far north as Marin County, has also prompted a vocal backlash against parents who do not vaccinate their children for various reasons, including personal and religious beliefs or overriding medical considerations.
Critics fault them as people who put their own interests above the public’s welfare, while their defenders, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a presumptive candidate for president, say the so-called anti-vaxxers are asserting their right to make critical decisions regarding their children.
Tara Howley of Sebastopol, whose two daughters are not immunized against measles, defended others who make the same choice.
Her daughters have autoimmune disorders that could cause an adverse reaction to the vaccine, she said.
“I actually think it’s healthy for children to get childhood diseases,” Howley said, thereby gaining lifetime immunity without the potentially negative side-effects of vaccines.
Other parents she knows who have steered away from vaccination are lawyers, physicians and other professionals who have studied the issue, she said.
“They’re not screwballs,” Howley said.
Sonoma County has for years had pockets of people who decline to vaccinate their kids. The latest state data, however, shows that as many as 36 schools from across the county have vaccination rates for measles below the level needed to protect the general population. At some schools, the vaccination rate for measles is half that level.
Local physicians say it’s likely only a matter of time before a measles case hits this year in Sonoma County, and health officials say they are worried about the prospect of the illness running rampant in schools and surrounding communities with low levels of vaccination.
“I am concerned there are clusters of people who choose not to vaccinate (their children),” said Dr. Karen Holbrook, the county’s deputy health officer.
Overall, Sonoma County public and private schools posted a 91.48 percent kindergarten immunization rate this year, just below the statewide rate of 92.55 percent.
The county rate is sufficient “to prevent widespread illness,” Holbrook said, adding that she would prefer to see a rate in the mid-90s.
Schools in western Sonoma County, particularly, rank among the lowest for measles vaccination rates. In Sebastopol and Occidental, for example, a total of four schools reported immunization rates of roughly 23 to 58 percent - far from the 90 percent threshold that indicates protection for the population at large, a concept known as “herd immunity.”
Sebastopol Independent Charter School, with 10 of 44 kindergartners immunized against measles, had the lowest rate - 22.7 percent - among 111 county schools included in a California Department of Public Health report on kindergartners who enrolled last fall.
Orchard View School, an independent study charter school in Sebastopol, had a 25 percent immunization rate; Live Oak Charter School in Petaluma reported a rate of 33.3 percent; SunRidge Charter School in Sebastopol recorded a rate of 38.6 percent; and Pathways Charter School in Rohnert Park had a rate of 50 percent.
Summerfield Waldorf School and Farm, a private school located west of Santa Rosa, had 57.8 percent immunization, and Harmony Elementary School in Occidental had the lowest rate among public, non-charter schools at 62.5 percent.
State law allows parents to opt out of vaccinating their children by filing a personal belief exemption, including a signed form from their physician. Exemptions also are granted for religious beliefs and medical reasons.