In light of the recent measles diagnosis of an unvaccinated child in Valley Springs, the Enterprise spoke with Calaveras County Public Health Officer Dr. Dean Kelaita to discuss a regional decline in local parents choosing to vaccinate their children.
In the fall of 2017, a mandatory statewide survey of kindergarteners carried out by the California Department of Health showed that the number of students who had received their required immunizations was 95.1 percent – a 4.7-percent increase from 2014.
However, Mother Lode counties saw a decrease in immunization rates from the previous year and presented some of the lowest percentages statewide.
Sutter County ranked the lowest in the state, with 78.2 percent of surveyed kindergarteners having received their immunizations. Calaveras County reported 88.1 percent – a 1.5-percent decrease from the previous year. Tuolumne and Amador county also saw decreases, with ratings of 86.5 percent and 91.8 percent, respectively.
And the number of unvaccinated children could be even higher than what is shown in school-wide surveys. According to Kelaita, recent legislation prohibiting immunization exemption due to personal beliefs may be pushing more parents to homeschool their children.
“We do have a faction of parents that homeschool in Calaveras County,” Kelaita said.
He added that the majority of local parents opting out of vaccinations appeared to be of a higher socioeconomic status.
“We’ve seen that it’s not so much income-related or that parents can’t afford to go to the doctor,” Kelaita said. “Rather, it’s the opposite. Groups that are opposed to vaccinating are, at many times, more affluent, and parents are declining based on thoughts that vaccines aren’t safe.”
The local “anti-vaxxer” crowd has a vocal presence on social media, with some coming forward to comment on the recent measles diagnosis.
“I'm 66 and in my day before the Man Made ‘Propaganda’ Machine cranked out all this bull getting measles was a normal part of growing up,” wrote Facebook user Leticia Delgadillo on an Enterprise article post. “Mother Nature and our incredible Immune system She gave us is billions of years ahead in its Genius compared to these money making dead Corpe-orations [sic] ...Wake Up! Such nonsense putting TOXIC poison in your children [sic]”
Delgadillo and other anti-vaccination proponents did not responded to interview requests from the Enterprise by press time.
Weighing the risks
Since the advent of vaccinations, there have been those who have opposed them due to religious beliefs or concerns about adverse health effects. And some claims have carried more weight than others.
In 2006, California outlawed the use of mercury-containing vaccines on pregnant women and children under the age of 3.
Controversy has also surrounded the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, a two-dose immunization that is one of five required for all kindergarten through 12th graders attending school in California.
In the late ’90s, a medical journal called The Lancet published work by British doctor Andrew Wakefield arguing that the MMR vaccine was not properly tested before widespread use, and recommending an investigation into a possible relationship between bowel disease, autism and the vaccine, according to “The History of Vaccines,” an educational resource from the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The claims were quickly spread by the media and garnered a public following.
The Lancet later retracted the paper after the British General Medical Council ruled against Wakefield’s findings, and the author was also accused of scientific fraud for financial profit.
Currently, medical researchers have been unable to find any link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
“CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) continuously monitor the safety of vaccines after they are approved. If a problem is found with a vaccine, CDC and FDA will inform health officials, health care providers, and the public,” stated the CDC website regarding MMR vaccine safety.
“Some parents might worry that the vaccine causes autism,” CDC continued. “Signs of autism typically appear around the same time that children are recommended to receive the MMR vaccine. Vaccine safety experts, including experts at CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), agree that MMR vaccine is not responsible for increases in the number of children with autism.”
As with all medical procedures, vaccinations present some risks. CDC lists a fever and mild rash in addition to rarer, more serious side effects including seizures in older infants that may be experienced with the MMR vaccine.
Still, Kelaita argues that the risks of allowing children to remain unvaccinated are far greater. He recalls hearing “horror stories” from previous generations about children who contracted polio and other potentially deadly diseases.
“Diseases like polio and meningitis have wreaked havoc on mankind since the beginning of time, and we can now control those diseases,” Kelaita said. “Vaccines are the greatest public health intervention in history.”
This week, Kelaita and other public health officials are contacting, monitoring and possibly quarantining individuals in Calaveras, Amador, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties who may have come into contact with the infected child before a diagnosis was made.
“One case of measles is bad enough to be considered an outbreak,” said Kelaita, who has never seen another case of measles in nearly 20 years of working in Calaveras County. “This is highly concerning because measles is a very contagious viral illness that can spread very easily.”
According to CDC, roughly 268 individual cases of measles have been confirmed within 15 states, including California, between Jan. 1 and March 14 of this year. Symptoms include flu-like symptoms and a rash, and complications can be fatal, especially in infants, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems.
The United States currently remains free of more devastating diseases like polio, though Americans have contracted the disease while abroad.
The child in Valley Springs, who was well over the age to vaccinate, Kelaita said, brought back measles from a trip overseas
“These diseases have not gone away. They’re controlled through immunization, and if we don’t immunize, they will come back,” Kelaita said. “This is a glaring example of what can happen when kids are not immunized against measles. It not only puts the children’s lives at risk, but also endangers other people in the community.”