V is for Vaccination Village

herd immunityI live in Marin County, California—ground zero of the vaccination wars that erupted after this winter’s measles outbreak in Disneyland. Marin County is one of the most affluent, best-educated, and progressive enclaves in America. It also has some of the highest rates of personal belief exemptions for standard childhood vaccinations. Left-wing parents here who do not want to vaccinate their children cry “Freedom!” just as loudly as their right-wing counterparts. Some have quipped that Marin County is the place where the Tea Party and the Green Tea Party come together.

I support SB277, a bill currently making its way through California’s Senate that would eliminate all but medical exemptions for vaccinations for school-aged children whose parents wish to enroll them in public schools.

Yet I hesitate to wade into the battleground, knowing how firmly held beliefs become even more entrenched when disputed, even in the face of scientific evidence. Although a false claim linking autism to vaccines has been thoroughly debunked, fear persists. I do not know how to approach parents who fervently defend their right to choose what is best for their children when I know it is not best—for their kids, or for anyone else’s. Maybe if my friend Mark Paul’s essay, “My Polio, My Mother’s Choice,” were required reading, it would be more persuasive than my impatient incredulity.

These days, though, I fear that perhaps we’re suffering from something even worse than the easily preventable outbreak of disease. The vaccination wars speak to deeper problems in our country: distrust in the government, both earned and unearned; too many who turn away from science; and, most gravely, the abandonment of the village. The near-universal practice of vaccination confers herd immunity, protecting those who are too young, too old, or too immuno-compromised to be vaccinated. But if enough people seek “freedom”—freedom from their responsibility to the herd–where does that leave us? We are too much in it for ourselves now, no longer interested in contributing to the common good. This worrisome trend affects many issues beyond vaccination

It does, indeed, takes a village. But what if people want only the rights, and not the responsibilities, of being a villager?


HPV: The Other Vaccine

Source: http://www.womenshealthmag.com/Has anything been left unsaid in the uproar over vaccination since the measles outbreak? My little sleepy corner of the world, Marin County, has even been skewered by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show for its high rate of personal-belief exemptions. Not since the peacock feathers and hottubs of the 70s have we been so subject to ridicule.

Yet one aspect of the vaccination debate deserves more attention. A local newspaper story provides a clue, quoting a parent who said, almost as an afterthought, “There are vaccines I didn’t do. I skipped the one related to sexually transmitted disease.”

She means the HPV vaccine, which protects against the human papilloma virus. HPV is the most common of all sexually transmitted infections. Although usually harmless, it can be far deadlier than the measles—HPV causes cervical and other cancers. In the United States, 12,000 are diagnosed with and 4,000 die from cervical cancer each year. Even those less drastically affected may suffer invasive testing, treatments, and anxiety. There is no way of knowing who will be afflicted or who will spread it to others.

But since 2006, it’s been possible to stay safe from the most serious strains of HPV. All it takes is three shots administered over six months to girls and boys around age 11, before they become sexually active.

You’d think parents would jump for joy at such an easy way to protect their children from getting or giving cancer. Yet even though the vaccines are highly safe and effective, a recent KQED report notes that based on 2011 data, the most current available, “Just 33 percent of girls and less than 7 percent of boys in the U.S. have gotten all three recommended doses.”  When it comes to HPV, there’s no ground zero like Marin County to mock for low immunization rates; they’re abysmal across the whole country.

Many parents fear that vaccinating against HPV condones early sexual behavior, despite evidence to the contrary. Even some doctors are reluctant to bring up the topic because of the link to sex. But such fears fly in the face of reality.

We can keep our heads in the sand and hope that nothing bad happens. Or we can keep our kids safe from cancer and other ills with the HPV vaccine.


How will/did you choose? What do you think of the vaccination debate? 

For more on HPV and the HPV vaccine:

Center for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/hpv/vaccine.html 

KQED Forum: http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201408040900

Dr. Jen Gunter, Ob-gyn who writes about women’s health: https://drjengunter.wordpress.com/tag/hpv-vaccine/