Vaccine Deniers: Inside the Dumb, Dangerous New Fad
In San Francisco’s upscale Pacific Heights neighborhood, some 200 students from kindergarten to the eighth grade attend classes at the private San Francisco Waldorf School. On any given afternoon outside of the cheerful, modern white building, parents congregate to wait for their kids. Chit-chat includes the typical fodder like play dates and birthdays, or who was cast in the school play. But occasionally the topic of illness arises — which is where things can take a turn towards the atypical. You might, for instance, hear about “chicken pox parties,” where healthy kids come over to sick kids’ houses to catch the disease.
Of course, there’s a vaccine for chicken pox. It’s been available since 1995, and is part of every state’s recommended vaccine schedule, which the majority of US children receive. But SF Waldorf represents an unusual population: only 35 percent of incoming kindergarteners are up to date on all their vaccinations, one of the lowest rates in San Francisco for a school of its size and vastly lower than the national average of 95 percent. Which puts SF Waldorf firmly in the crosshairs of a national debate.
A vast minority of parents across the country, around 1.8 percent, opt out of vaccines by citing either religious or philosophical reasons. And these non-vaccinators have, in recent years, been the subject of intense media scrutiny. In part, you can blame a former Playboy bunny: Jenny McCarthy, who ABC recently hired as a new host on The View, has waged an ardent, vocal campaign against “toxins” in vaccines that she believes were responsible for causing her son’s autism.
Recent outbreaks of preventable illnesses have only added more fuel to the fire. This year, 16 states have reported cases of measles, making 2013 the second worst year for the disease since 2000. In August, the illness struck 21 people linked to a single Texas megachurch that eschewed vaccinations. And just last week, a new study concluded that vaccine refusals were largely to blame for a 2010 outbreak of whooping cough in California.
The issue of vaccination invariably provokes polarized debates, often manifesting in online comment sections and on Twitter and Facebook. Often, the levels of savagery and vitriol are on par with those surrounding debates about abortion and gun control. Anti-vaccinators are typically branded as naïve simpletons, while pro-vaccinators are slammed as being reactionary reductionists.
The reality, like most things, is more nuanced. At the SF Waldorf School parents are educated, liberal-leaning, wealthy enough to afford the $20,200 a year for kindergarten, and often working in technology, law, and other white-collar professions that demand critical thinking skills. But some of them are also treating flawed, precarious medical advice as gospel — and disregarding the health of an entire community in so doing. Looking at the decisions of these parents to stray from standard medical advice, and also at the community of doctors and educators who support them, provides a unique window into one of our country’s most taboo topics.