One of the most painful chapters to write in The Panic Virus was the story of Danielle and Ralph Romaguera, whose infant daughter, Brie, died of a pertussis infection when she was less than two months old. (In January, I recorded a Vanity Fair podcast with that chapter of the book.) Whooping cough is a scary, scary disease — as the Romagueras, or the parents of any of the ten infants who died of pertussis last year in California, can attest. (Nine of those children were under six months old, which is the age at which a child following the CDC-recommended vaccine schedule would be fully vaccinated.)
Brie Romaguera’s death is a tragic example of the reality that when parents choose not to vaccinate, they are not making a “purely personal” decision — they are making one that has the potential to affect everyone their children come in contact with. Infectious diseases are, by definition, transmitted through the environment — which usually means from one person to another. If an unvaccinated child shows up at a pediatrician’s office with a nasty cough that ends up being pertussis, that child is putting the life of every infant who happens to be in the office for a wellness appointment that day at risk.
This week, there is an example in Virginia of the ways in which a concentrated number of deliberately unvaccinated children can effect (or infect, depending on your perspective) the health of an entire region: Earlier today, The Roanoke Times reported that the Blue Mountain School, an “alternative” private school in Floyd County, had to shut down for a full week after twenty-three of its forty-five students came down with pertussis. According to the Times, every single one of those children was unvaccinated. The school’s administrator, Shelly Emmett, was quoted as saying, “Many of the families and staff at our school understand that some people choose not to vaccinate their children. We’re not requiring that they do.”
Emmett seems to be saying that the school’s administrators have decided they are exempt from Virginia law, which requires schools and day care centers to have documented proof that children have been vaccinated. (There are religious exemptions available in Virginia, as there are in 48 out of 50 states; Emmett’s quote implies that some, but not all, of the school’s unvaccinated students obtained such an exemption.)
I fear we’re going to be reading similar stories in the months and years to come. After a 2008 measles outbreak in California — which, incidentally, was started after a non-vaccinated patient of self-proclaimed vaccine and autism expert “Dr. Bob” Sears came back from a European vacation with the virus — a Los Angeles Times investigation identified two hundred Southern California schools where outbreaks are more likely “in large part because of parents choosing not to immunize. … Most are schools in affluent areas.” I wrote about the ’08 outbreak in my book; when I went back and re-read that section this morning, I was struck by the parallels to the current situation in Virginia:
One of those schools is the Ocean Charter School in Del Rey, California, where an entire century’s worth of medical advances have effectively been thrown out the window: Since the 2007-2008 school year, between forty and sixty percent of incoming kindergarteners have been exempted from vaccines. Administrators told the Times those figures were no surprise, because the school’s “nontraditional curriculum” attracted “well-educated parents who tend to be skeptical of mainstream beliefs.” “They question traditional knowledge,” the school’s assistant director said, “and feel empowered to make their own decisions for their families, not deferring to traditional wisdom.”
Indeed: Traditional wisdom holds that vaccine-preventable diseases like whooping cough, measles, and Hib are dangerous and potentially deadly. This week, the students at the Blue Mountain School get to learn those lessons in basic virology first-hand.