Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Superstition, Pseudoscience and Threat to Children Grow in California

The number of parents getting their kids vaccinated has been declining, particularly in affluent communities, like Marin, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Citizen has just published vaccination rates for kindergartners in the Bay Area. However, it is not just Marin with lower than normal vaccination rates. Many affluent communities had vaccination rates well below the state average, like Atherton and Burlingame in San Mateo County.

For the complete Bay Citizen article, please click here. For data on specific cities, districts or schools please use the following links: View all Cities | View all School Districts | View all Schools

Children are required by law to have proof of vaccinations before being admitted to schools in California. However, parents can still get their unvaccinated kids into school by using the “personal belief” exemption. 21 states have “personal belief” exemptions, according to

The “personal belief” exemption rate for private schools was 3.56% compared with 2.16% for public schools. However, Marin County had a “personal belief” exemption rate of 7.06% for its public schools, triple the state average and more than double the average of all other Bay Area counties except Sonoma, which had an exemption rate of 5.98%.

Marin County had the highest per capita income in the state, with a 2009 median household income of $86,658. According to the 2000 census, it was also the highest ranked in the nation. San Mateo, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Contra Costa Counties were the 2nd-5th wealthiest counties, while Sonoma County came in at number 12, with a median household income of $53,076, which was slightly above the state norm. In 2009, however, the median household income was $61,985, with 9.5% of residents living below the federal poverty level, significantly lower than the 14.2% statewide average. (Data is from the government census)

However, wealth is not the only factor influencing vaccination rates. San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties each had exemption rates below 2%, while San Mateo and Contra Costa Counties were just over 2%, despite the fact that they are among the wealthiest counties in the state. On the other hand, the Sonoma towns of Sebastopol and Occidental (both with median household incomes around $60,000, just above the state median), had whopping “personal belief” exemption rates of 28.53% and 33.33%, respectively, helping to skew the data for this small county with a population barely half the size of San Francisco. Other Sonoma towns also had higher than average exemption rates (e.g., Geyserville, 9.38%; Cloverdale, 5.13%; Guerneville, 5.56%; Petaluma, 6.10%).

The “personal belief” exemption allows parents to opt out of vaccinations for almost any reason as long as it is “against their beliefs,” including the mistaken belief that vaccines are risky or dangerous for their children. This belief has been growing recently, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, due to a well-funded and politically well-connected snake oil machine, particularly among many white, middle class, anti-establishment and anti-“Western” medicine types (many of whom live in Marin, Sonoma and other Bay Area communities).

The notion that vaccines cause autism has been thoroughly discredited (see here, here and here). The main proponent of this fraud, Andrew Wakefield, has been barred from practicing medicine and had his paper retracted from The Lancet when it became clear that he fabricated data and collected $674,000 from lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers, a serious conflict of interest he failed to disclose to the journal.

Other pseudoscientific paranoias include the notion that vaccines overwhelm a child’s immune system. However, there is no science to back this claim. Some parents also believe that vaccines increase the risk of diabetes, but this is based on the flawed research of a single discredited scientist. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that there is no connection.

In fact, the chances of a serious vaccine-related side effect are far lower than the chances of the disease itself causing serious side effects or death, which is the main reason why children should get vaccinated. There are some minor side effects associated with some vaccines, like muscle pain or fever, but they are usually mild and relatively uncommon.

For any given vaccine, there is also a small chance that it will not give the patient immunity. For most vaccines, this rate varies from 5-25%. However, this is absolutely NOT a reason to forgo vaccines because the more people who are vaccinated, the greater the herd immunity, which gives the greatest protection of all. For example, an unvaccinated person in a highly vaccinated community has greater protection than a vaccinated person does in a community with a low vaccination rate. This is because once the herd immunity threshold has been reached (generally around an 80% vaccination rate) there is little opportunity for the infection to take hold in the community and hence no way for it to spread.

Many parents who forgo vaccines do so under the belief that the “herd” immunity of their community will protect their children. The problem with this belief is that their community may never attain herd immunity because so many are forgoing their vaccinations. It is also a terribly selfish and callous mentality that essentially expects everyone else to do what they fear and refuse to do. “I won’t let my child be damaged by those terrible vaccine manufacturers, but I’m counting on everyone else to get vaccinated so my precious won’t catch something nasty.

Not surprisingly, seven of the 12 California counties with the highest rates of whooping cough last year (including Marin) also had above average rates of “personal belief” exemptions, according to an article by California Watch. The others were rural Central Valley counties with high rates of migrant laborers who it is presumed have lower vaccination rates due to poverty and immigration status. Numerous studies have found that states with easy to obtain “personal belief” exemptions, like California, had higher vaccination exemption rates and higher rates of pertussis (whooping cough) and measles—see here and here.

California’s whooping cough rate has approached levels not seen since the 1950s. The disease can be deadly for infants (10 died of the disease in 2010), a risk that increases dramatically when there are higher than normal rates of infections among older children. However, even older children suffer, with some requiring hospitalization, while extended absences from school can jeopardize their academic success. I had one student who missed two weeks due to whooping cough. He never did catch up and had to retake a semester of biology.

One might wonder why there is even such a thing as a “Personal Belief” exemption, as it implies that one person’s beliefs trump public safety, even when their beliefs are superstitious, selfish or wrong. We do not allow a “personal belief” exemption for bullying—kids cannot get permission to bully others based on race, gender, sexual orientation, even if that’s the belief of their families. Yet many schools do allow students to be excused from studying evolution because of their religious beliefs and exemptions from sex education are relatively common.

All of these exemptions have potentially serious consequences for society. Unvaccinated children decrease the chances of herd mentality being achieved, thus increasing the risks for everyone. Children who are ignorant about sexuality, birth control and STDS are at risk of unwanted pregnancies or STDS and spreading them to other people’s children.

Until recently, however, it was relatively difficult to get an exemption from vaccinations. Parents had to show that they held religious beliefs that prevented vaccinating their children. And there is a movement to tighten these rules in order to increase vaccination rates. The National Association of County and City Health Officials, for example, supports the elimination of “personal belief” exemptions, while leaving religious and medical exemptions intact.


  1. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to learn you were being paid by drug companies to write this. I know a family whose perfectly normal child became a vegetable after receiving the pertussis vaccine, so don't lecture me about how "safe" vaccines are. Anyone with any common sense knows injecting mercury into a human body cannot have positive outcomes. Why do the wealthy have increasing rates of non-vaccinated kids? Because they are more educated. Look at the HPV vaccine, with increasing numbers of young girls having adverse reactions (such as Guillain Barre Syndrome) and even deaths. The flu vaccine is one of the biggest money making scams ever devised. You are pushing this crap, either knowingly or not, and are just as guilty as the drug companies are.

  2. Your comments reflect exactly the kind of paranoia and ignorance I'm criticizing.

    1st, if I was paid by the drug companies, I wouldn't continue teaching. I'd be richer and have a hell of a lot fewer headaches.

    2nd, I wasn't lecturing you personally, or anyone. Simply pointing out the hypocrisy and the facts. If you don't like hearing the truth, then don't waste your time reading my blog or writing hysterical and ill-informed letters!

    3rd, mercury (thimerasol) hasn't been used in children's vaccines for a decade, now. Even so, the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines was causing autism has been thoroughly discredited, it's main proponent barred from practicing medicine and his research paper retracted.

    4th, becoming a vegetable or having any sort of health effect after getting a vaccine does NOT prove that the vaccine was the cause any more than going to the store and running into a friend causes you to run into the friend. It may be connected or it may be coincidence.

    In the case of Guillain-Barre syndrome, the cases during the swine flu epidemic of the 1970s was likely just coincidence. The number of cases was either exactly the same as would occur naturally (about 1-2 cases per 500,000) or nominally higher (about 2-3 cases per 500,000). Even so, this increase would be so low as to be far outweighed by the protection the vaccine would have given over the possibility of a deadly pandemic, like in 1919, in which 50-100 million people died worldwide, the deadliest disease outbreak in the history of Earth.

    So let's be clear about the facts: getting vaccinated, particularly for serious diseases like smallpox and polio, has dramatically decreased childhood deaths, whereas the documented risks of vaccines has caused very few deaths.