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Epidemic of vaccine fear triggers return of old-school diseases


Tents, signs, protests and chants are all the rage these days for showing our growing distrust of government and big corporations.

Want to know another way that distrust is manifesting in America?

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Through whooping cough, measles and diphtheria.

Yup. Stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have gone totally retro, with old-school diseases coming back stronger than pencil skirts.


Our nation’s parents have a growing distrust of vaccinations, one of medicine’s greatest advances. And we’re not just talking about 2 or 3 percent anymore. The fringe who didn’t believe in medicine for religious and other reasons has exploded into a 10 percent, largely yuppie epidemic.

A report published this month in the medical journal Pediatrics says that one in 10 parents are avoiding or delaying vaccines in their children because of safety concerns. So now places such as San Diego and Minneapolis are the backdrops for mini-epidemics of deadly diseases not seen in generations.

GOP presidential hopeful Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) gave wind to more anti-vaccine hysteria last month when she reported one woman’s alleged horror story with the HPV vaccine, which is designed to protect girls from cervical cancer.

“I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Fla., after the debate and tell me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter,” Bachmann said.

Now that’s just ridiculous.

The anti-vaccine movement began gaining momentum about a decade ago, when folks started to allege a link between immunization and autism, fueled by studies from a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield. It was seized on by parents desperate to find an explanation for the sharp rise in diagnoses of autism in children, including their own.

The embrace of everything eco- and bio- and whole and organic also drove the rejection of stuff manufactured in a lab that is injected into your babies.

And then the cause was famously taken up by actress Jenny McCarthy, who loudly went on Oprah’s show and concluded that “the University of Google” confirmed that her son’s autism was caused by a vaccine.

“That woman. With the swinging blond hair and spray tan. People listened to her. They still listen to her,” lamented Alexandra Stewart, who teaches health policy at George Washington University.

Numerous medical studies have debunked the connection between vaccines and autism, but parental resistance keeps rising anyway.

“You have someone like [McCarthy] out there, and then you have CDC scientists,” a frustrated Stewart said.

I asked her whether a more glamorous spokesperson would do the trick. There was a moment of silence before we both agreed on an answer: “CDC Barbie!”

Barbie could put on a tiny labcoat and little white high heels to go with her pro-immunization message. That’s not a far-fetched idea, given the overwhelming data being ignored by parents.

Earlier this year, Wakefield’s study was at last retracted by the British medical journal Lancet because some of the data turned out to be bogus.

Still, the number of parents who won’t trust shots keeps rising, primarily, Stewart said, among “white, educated populations of people with computers.”

Ordinarily, their kids would have to be immunized to attend school, that petri dish of boogers, drool and various germs that children produce.

If you have a strong religious opposition to vaccination, or it is proven that your child would medically be harmed by a vaccine, you can opt out. In some states — California and Washington, for instance — there is also a “philosophical exemption” that allows the children of Google-educated worriers into school without shots.

“We don’t have that. And not allowing that philosophical exemption really helps us with our rates,” said Greg K. Reed, who runs Maryland’s Center for Immunization. Only about 1 percent of Maryland schoolchildren aren’t immunized based on the limited exemption, Reed said. And the state hasn’t experienced any of the old-school disease outbreaks plaguing California, Washington and other Western states.

There is also no “philosophical” exemption in Virginia. But there, the rates of religious exemptions have been trending upward over the past few years and now account for 1.36 percent of children who aren’t immunized, said Sandra Sommer, the quality assurance and policy manager for the state’s Division of Immunization.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of vaccine hesitancy lately,” Sommer said. “And part of it is that vaccines are victims of their own success.” Not a lot of folks have seen kids die of diphtheria.

For now, the three measles cases that Virginia had last year — “We hadn’t seen that many in a long time,” Sommers said — didn’t become 30 or 300 because so many other children were immunized.

Paging CDC Barbie . . .

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.

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