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PD Editorial: Taking a needless risk with health

  • A student receives a whooping cough vaccination at the Elsie Allen High health clinic. (The Press Democrat, 2011)

Three words to remember: Vaccinations save lives.

So why are so many parents, especially here in the greater Bay Area, putting their children at risk by refusing to have them vaccinated against measles, whooping cough and other infectious but easily preventable diseases?

Once nearly eradicated, whooping cough (pertussis) has had a resurgence over the past several years. Measles also was a fading memory in the United States before health officials in California sounded the alarm this past week.

In both instances, the primary cause is declining vaccination rates.

By claiming religious or philosophical objections, parents can enroll their children in school without required vaccinations, a list that includes polio, diphtheria, tetanus, mumps and rubella as well as whooping cough and measles.

About 3 percent of children start kindergarten in California without vaccinations, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. The waiver rate more than doubles to 6.3 percent for Sonoma County, and it's considerably higher in some pockets of the county. In the Twin Hills and Sebastopol Union school districts, for example, the exemption rate is 40 percent or higher.

Parents devote considerable time to choosing schools and activities for their children. Yet when it comes to health, too many parents accept junk science found on the fringes of the Internet and spread by the likes of Rep. Michele Bachmann, who declared, without any evidence, that the HPV vaccine causes birth defects. Pseudo-celebrity Jenny McCarthy has helped perpetuate the falsehood that immunization can cause autism.

The claim, published almost 17 years ago in a British medical journal, has been conclusively refuted. Credible researchers have proven that data were falsified. The article was retracted, and the lead author lost his medical license. Yet suspicion persists, even here in a highly educated community.

It isn't often that we find ourselves saying that Mississippi has a better record than Sonoma County or California on a matter of education or health. Regrettably, that is the case when it comes to preventing the needless spread of childhood diseases. CDC figures show that fewer than 1 percent of Magnolia State children enter kindergarten without the proper immunizations.

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