The Curious Case of Seattle’s Vaccine Anxiety
IT’S NOT EVERY DAY THAT SEATTLEITES AND Michele Bachmann are on the same side of an issue. But for a brief moment there in September, the congresswoman and at least some in the Emerald City seemed to see eye to eye. During a Tea Party–sponsored GOP presidential debate, Bachmann attacked Texas governor Rick Perry’s mandatory human papillomavirus vaccine for preteens in his state and—ignoring that the mandate had a parental opt-out clause—fumed: “I’m offended for all the little girls and parents who didn’t have a choice.” She sustained the antigovernment and antivaccine bluster the next day with an anecdote about a supporter who claimed a vaccine had struck her daughter “with mental retardation.”
The tizzy seemed to bloody both right-wing leaders’ presidential odds, and a left-leaning Seattleite might relish the moment. That is until one looks at our own region’s record.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in June that, at 6.2 percent, Washington State has the highest vaccination opt-out rate in the nation. That means, per capita, more of our children enter kindergarten vulnerable to polio, whooping cough, measles, hepatitis B, and chicken pox than anywhere else in the country. And the opt-outs are notably pervasive in some of Seattle’s most affluent and well-educated communities. Thornton Creek Elementary in Wedgwood, for instance, had an 18 percent opt-out rate last year. Rates at some private Waldorf schools are even higher.
That was hardly news for local health providers. “Our doctors kept saying there was a problem for years, a real gap between the research and parents’ understanding of vaccines,” says Group Health Cooperative spokesperson Joe Turcotte. Meanwhile, pertussis—commonly known as whooping cough—is on the rise. Snohomish County alone has seen at least 52 cases this year, including one that resulted in an infant’s death.
“Go ahead, type in ‘vaccine’ and ‘safety’ in Google and see what you get.”
Why would the Seattle area, which consistently ranks as one of the most educated regions in the nation, fall in line with a movement more often associated with public education foes and global warming deniers?
Seattleites’ penchant for independent thinking may be partly to blame.
Turcotte recently surveyed vaccination-hesitant parents. “These are people who are educated, active researchers. They said they wanted to make decisions for themselves” instead of accepting info from a brochure.
The problem, he says, is not the parents, but the glut of inaccurate info available. “In the past 10 years antivaccine people have been increasingly effective in undermining the science. Go ahead, type in ‘vaccine’ and ‘safety’ in Google and see what you get.”
What you get—after a link to the CDC—are dozens of vaccine-scare sites, including one that provides “data that suggests vaccines may cause diabetes, asthma, allergies, autoimmune diseases, cancers, and Gulf War Syndrome”—threats that the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have categorically stated are nonexistent.
To counter, Vax Northwest, a nonprofit sponsored by Group Health that recently scored a $750,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is focused on providing accurate info to the public. (The collaboration has spawned its own chorus of critics; one group refers to regional vaccination efforts as the “vax attack.”)
“Some people don’t realize that what they view as an individual decision also affects those around them,” says Turcotte. “It’s like secondhand smoke. A parent would never send their child to an elementary school with smoking in the classroom.”
Take for example babies in intensive care. They often can’t receive vaccines for six weeks or more, so if they come in contact with someone who has contracted whooping cough, the disease could very likely kill them.
As for Seattle’s vaccine-wary, Turcotte laughs, “I bet they couldn’t find a single other thing they agree with Michele Bachmann on.”