Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Anti-Vaxxers Unite! Schools and Paranoid Parents Team Up to Undermine Public Safety

Santa and Reindeer quarantine with Pertussis (by Richard Croft)
For the first time in fourteen years of teaching I am seeing students marked absent by the attendance office for failing to get their required vaccinations. With California’s new requirement that all teenagers get DTAP boosters against whooping cough (pertussis), schools across the state are seeing declines in daily attendance as unvaccinated students are being barred from attending class.

The law makes sound public health sense. Whooping cough is not an ordinary respiratory infection like the common cold. It is often deadly, particularly for infants. In fact, ten children died of the disease in California last year, in the state’s worst outbreak in sixty years. While the majority of infected children do not die, the disease is still far from trivial. Hospitalizations are common, as are protracted absences from school. Students sometimes miss 2-4 weeks of school while they recover from the disease. Furthermore, if an infected student does attend class, approximately 50-80% of all unvaccinated children will contract the disease (see The California Report, KQED, 9/21/11).

The increase in pertussis cases was due primarily to declining vaccination rates among the state’s children and the fact that the vaccine does not confer life-long immunity, like the polio vaccine does. In order to maintain one’s protection, booster shots are required during the teen years. However, many parents used the “personal belief” exemption to get their kids exempted, which allows parents to avoid vaccinations for their kids for virtually any reason at all, including the misperception that vaccines are dangerous.

One rarely discussed repercussion of California’s new vaccination law has been a worsening of schools’ financial woes. Most schools depend heavily on state funding which is based on Average Daily Attendance (ADA). As a result, schools with high rates of absenteeism lose substantial funding.

Some school districts, like the Natomas Unified District near Sacramento, are responding by ignoring the law and allowing unvaccinated students to attend school, in flagrant disregard for the health and safety of their other students and staff (see California Report, KQED, 9/21/11), so they can keep their ADA numbers high. Some have taken the “precaution” of quarantining the unvaccinated students in their gymnasiums or libraries, which is probably still a violation of education code or other state laws requiring equal access. It certainly deprives these students of the same learning environments as their peers and makes lab science classes impossible.
Quarantine (by Anonymous)

This tactic to save money could end up backfiring. If unvaccinated students infect their peers, a school could have a large outbreak and end up with far more absences than they would if they simply obeyed the law and kept unvaccinated students home.

Contrary to the paranoid delusional perspectives of some parents, vaccines like the DTAP vaccine are not only safe, but do a much better job protecting children from a serious illness than leaving them unvaccinated. If we compare this year with last, there have only been 10 new pertussis cases in Marin County, one of the worst hit (and least vaccinated) counties in the state last year, with 350 cases.

While it is still not entirely clear why they had such a dramatic turnaround, we do know that Marin health officials launched an intensive public education campaign and offered free vaccine clinics to support the new state requirement that all middle and high school students have up-to-date pertussis vaccinations. It is very likely that the new law, combined with the outreach campaign contributed to the dramatic decline.

According to the Bay Citizen, the Marin outreach campaign was quite extensive and included letters to parents, a middle school poster contest, public service announcements and free vaccinations for those who could not afford them. There were also five back-to-school clinics over the summer that provided vaccinations. And it wasn’t just children. Parents got boosters, too, helping to bring the community closer to achieving herd immunity and further reducing the chances of contracting the disease.

However, the problem seems to be growing in other counties. According to the California Report, there are still 2,000 students in San Francisco Unified, 16,000 in San Diego Unified, 45,000 in Long Beach Unified, and 209,000 in Los Angeles Unified who still need to be vaccinated.

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