Outbreaks of various vaccine-preventable diseases throughout Los Angeles and the United States are on the rise as more and more parents choose to opt out of immunizing their children. All elementary and secondary schools in Los Angeles require that students either be up-to-date on immunizations or have an exemption for personal or religious beliefs.
According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, it is law in all U.S. states that children be immunized before attending school or daycare. However, all states offer medical exemptions; 48 states allow religious exemptions, and 18 states allow personal belief exemptions. As many as 40% of American households do not immunize their children, according to National Geographic.
Some parents opt to not vaccinate their children with the Measles/Mumps/Rubella (MMR) vaccine, for example, due to evidence in a 1998 study published by Andrew Wakefield in the medical journal The Lancet, which links the MMR vaccine to autism. The United Kingdom’s Department of Health has since proved the study fraudulent and Wakefield’s claims to be false. Consequently, Wakefield was stripped of his medical license in February 2010.
Although it was retracted, Wakefield’s study sparked fear among parents everywhere and compelled actor Jenny McCarthy’s Green Our Vaccines movement in 2008. McCarthy, who has an autistic son, campaigned to remove toxins from the MMR vaccine in order to make it safer for America’s children.
According to National Geographic, the percentage of parents in the U.S. opting out of standard vaccinations rose from 22% in 2003 to 40% just five years later. Even after Wakefield’s study was discredited, it continues to lead thousands of parents to opt out of immunizing their children.
Some members of the medical community worry about the trend to not vaccinate. As a medical student working at the UCLA Brentwood Health Clinic, Haejung Lee interacted with new mothers and young children during a recent rotation.
“It’s sad when parents don’t vaccinate their children. I remember I had to try and convince a mother to let [the doctor] vaccinate her new baby for Whooping Cough and she refused. Whooping Cough is now a much bigger risk for all small children because of parents like these,” Lee said during her office hours last month.
On the other hand, a Marlborough School student in the Class of 2015 received the MMR vaccine, which the state of California and the School require, but opted not to get the popular influenza vaccine. Her mother did not want to risk introducing the live virus to her daughter’s body.
“I believe that the body is strong enough, and with a balance of rest, exercise and healthy eating, the immune system doesn’t need anything else to fight [influenza] off. The vaccine is formulated well in advance [of flu season] so the virus injected into your body may not be the same strain as the virus going around,” the student’s mother said. According to the girl’s family, she has not been ill since 2011, right after getting the flu vaccine for the first and last time.
Administering vaccines (and, in some cases, administering any medical care at all) is considered a violation of several religious groups’ beliefs. According to some Christian groups, for example, the Bible has various scriptures that they believe justify the right to not vaccinate. The reasons for these groups’ resistance to vaccinations include the importance of parental guardianship over governmental control, the threat of governmental conspiracy and the belief that God will protect them better than any vaccine might.
In May and June of this year, an outbreak of measles in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York raised concerns over parental decisions to not vaccinate their children. The outbreak became an epidemic in the Brooklyn community, ultimately affecting 48 families, all of whom had opted not to vaccinate their children for measles on religious grounds. In the wake of the Brooklyn measles tragedy, several medical experts expressed concern because of the preventability of measles.