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Vaccinating Kids Against Childhood Diseases and the H1N1 (Swine Flu)

 Vaccinating Kids Against Childhood Diseases and the H1N1 (Swine Flu)

 

If you’re a public health officer, the argument for vaccinating kids against childhood diseases is basic.

“The natural reservoir for vaccine-preventable diseases is humans. Everyone who gets one of these diseases gets it from someone else — not from a chair or an animal,” said Mark Netherda, deputy public health officer for Sonoma County. “So one very good reason to vaccinate the population is to protect each other.”

But for some parents, the argument isn’t basic at all; they feel the vaccines do more harm than good.

By California law, children start getting vaccinated when they’re infants, as young as two months. But it’s when they first enter school that someone besides the parents, the kids and their doctors really pays attention. The school immunization law requires that in order to start school, students must be up to date on their immunizations for polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis, varicella (chicken pox) and other diseases. The H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine isn’t on that list, although public health officials will be advising it for school-age children once the vaccine is available this fall.

 Vaccinating Kids Against Childhood Diseases and the H1N1 (Swine Flu)

By SUSAN SWARTZ
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 1:07 p.m.
 

If you’re a public health officer, the argument for vaccinating kids against childhood diseases is basic.

“The natural reservoir for vaccine-preventable diseases is humans. Everyone who gets one of these diseases gets it from someone else — not from a chair or an animal,” said Mark Netherda, deputy public health officer for Sonoma County. “So one very good reason to vaccinate the population is to protect each other.”

But for some parents, the argument isn’t basic at all; they feel the vaccines do more harm than good.

By California law, children start getting vaccinated when they’re infants, as young as two months. But it’s when they first enter school that someone besides the parents, the kids and their doctors really pays attention. The school immunization law requires that in order to start school, students must be up to date on their immunizations for polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis, varicella (chicken pox) and other diseases. The H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine isn’t on that list, although public health officials will be advising it for school-age children once the vaccine is available this fall.

When children start kindergarten, parents are asked to check off their kids’ vaccinations on a record that goes to the public health department. However, state law also allows parents to sign a waiver to exempt their child from immunizations based on the parent’s personal or religious beliefs.

For parents who choose not to simply follow doctor’s orders, that means doing extra homework long before the first day of kindergarten. They question the concentration and number of vaccines, the early age at which they’re administered. They worry about the vaccines themselves and the preservatives they’re in — specifically thimerosal, which contains mercury but is no longer approved for use in early-childhood vaccines.

“Our parents really study it,” said Susan Olson, executive director of the Sebastopol Independent Charter School, where 33 out of 44 kindergarteners were on the non-immunized list last year.

That statistic doesn’t mean those 33 students were entirely unvaccinated, Olson said. In many cases, the parents chose to have some immunizations and rejected others. For example, Olson said a parent might have her child take shots against tetanus and polio but not the one for measles, mumps and rubella. That vaccine, known as the MMR, is the controversial one — some believe it is linked to incidence of autism — and Olson said the one most commonly rejected by parents at her school.

No matter which shots they choose and which ones they reject, these parents and all unvaccinated kids are troubling to public health officials, who worry about large numbers of kids getting sick from diseases that vaccines are known to prevent.

“If you immunize enough people, you’ll have outbreaks of diseases but you won’t get an epidemic,” said Netherda, adding it takes roughly 85 percent compliance to prevent an epidemic. In Sonoma County the most recent figures showed 87 percent of school children meeting the federal standard for childhood vaccinations.

“We’re at the cusp,” said Netherda.

Sonoma County’s student exemption rate is six times higher than the national rate and three times that of the state. Netharda believes those statistics are too close for comfort and public safety is threatened unless the trend dramatically reverses.

Some parents believe that natural exposure to some diseases is better than a vaccine and rumors abound of chicken pox parties, where parents gather their kids at the home of a child with chicken pox so that they can be exposed, catch the disease and avoid getting the shot. Once someone gets chicken pox, he is immunized against its recurrence.

Some parents simply think that making a toddler endure 35 doses of 14 different vaccines before he’s two years ol is excessive and traumatizing.

“Suffering for 10 days with measles is much worse,” said Netherda. “People have forgotten how serious these infectious diseases are. Because they don’t see these diseases as much, they forget how bad they are. They don’t see as many deaf kids from rubella. Or people becoming sterile from mumps. Babies with whooping cough so bad their ribs break. And that’s because we vaccinate.”

But he warned that those diseases continue to circulate in the environment, including measles, which “is more than just a rash. It is a very serious illness. People still die from measles.”

Netherda practiced in Fresno in 1990 during a measles epidemic and said, “I watched kids die in my ICU from measles. I’ll never forget that.”

Dr. Moses Goldberg, a naturopathic doctor at the Integrative Medical Clinic in Santa Rosa, supports reasons for not vaccinating. At his clinic, he is the anti-vaccine minority and two other physicians are pro-vaccine.

“I know people say I’m crazy to question it,” he said.

Goldberg credits public health officials “for trying to do best for the greater good because vaccines do prevent disease,” but adds, “not all diseases are going to kill us.”

On top of that, he believes in a parent’s right to say no. He counsels patients and gives them a packet of information on vaccinations.

“Every patient has the right to know all the facts and then have the right to choose,” said Goldberg. He said some parents decide not to follow the recommended vaccination schedule and wait for the baby to develop a stronger immune system.

He does not believe that getting a vaccine causes autism, but said there are other risks and side effects he claims are underreported. They include rash, fever and respiratory distress that might make a child more susceptible to asthma and other chronic conditions down the road.

Netherda said the autism fear over vaccinations grew out of highly publicized scientific studies, which he said have since been disproved. He doesn’t believe there is a link.

Lorna Catford, a psychology professor with a Ph.D. in education who directs an autism training program at Sonoma State University, works with families of children with autism and is still not convinced there isn’t some correlation.

“I have heard so many descriptions from parents that after receiving various vaccinations their children either started losing skills or had a high fever or bad reaction and then started losing skills,” she said.

One Sebastopol mother decided not to vaccinate her kids because she believed there were potential links to degenerative and autoimmune diseases that could develop when they were adults. Her family largely relies on diet and homeopathic remedies to keep them healthy, said Jillian, who asked that her full name not be published because she wants to retain a low profile regarding her unvaccinated children.

She said there’s a stigma against those who don’t follow the mainstream and were there to be an epidemic she worries they’d be the first blamed. But she said her family has “grown to really trust alternative medicine.”

Rochelle Anderson of Santa Rosa goes with the mainstream. She vaccinated her two children as her doctor advised but did ask to go over the pros and cons, including the risk of autism.

“I am a bit of an unquestioning believer in my doctor, who I love and trust,” said Anderson. “But I did watch for signs (of side effects) after the shots.”

When her kids and she were exposed to whooping cough from another child who was not vaccinated, “I basically felt their kid was riding the healthy coattails of my kids, and that the non-vaccinated folk only have this luxury because the bulk of people their kids encounter are vaccinated,” she said.

Susan Swartz is a freelance writer and author based in Sonoma County. Contact her at [email protected].

The Press Democrat
 

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