Politics & Government

Vaccine fears haunt L.A.’s west side as parents face off over personal exemption rule

Pediatrician Charles Goodman vaccinates 1-year-old Cameron Fierro with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine at his practice in Northridge earlier this year.
Pediatrician Charles Goodman vaccinates 1-year-old Cameron Fierro with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine at his practice in Northridge earlier this year. AP

Mothers entering the mommy-and-me classroom at the Pump Station and Nurtury, a breastfeeding resource center, pass a sign urging access for “Well Mothers and Babies Only,” a testament to the fragile immune systems of the infants who enter.

A cough is enough for co-founder Wendy Haldeman to send parents home.

Because many of those babies are too young to be fully vaccinated, Haldeman also has a window on a raging debate over public health and parenting. Her facility serves both parents who skip shots they believe to be toxic, a sentiment common on the west side of Los Angeles, and parents who believe that non-vaccinators are a hazard to society.

As California lawmakers pursue legislation erasing the personal belief exemption that allows parents to avoid vaccinating their children, the issue has dominated lives and reconfigured the behavior of parents in the affluent environs of west Los Angeles.

“We have the parents who are wholeheartedly invested on vaccinations, and they’re really angry with the parents who won’t vaccinate because it’s putting their children at risk,” said Haldeman, who is a registered pediatric nurse. “Then we have the parents who feel it’s their right to decide whether their child is immunized, and they’re very angry someone is trying to mandate their child’s health.”

Into the former camp fall parents like Adam Dembowitz, who watched his 19-month-old son frolic with ducks at a nearby park. The child is allergic to eggs, and since some vaccines contain egg protein he was only recently cleared to get his measles-mumps-rubella shot. Before that he spent months exposed to unvaccinated classmates.

“We were rolling the dice every time we went to school,” Dembowitz said.

Parents who eschew vaccinations say the greater risk is in the shots themselves. Rejecting the broad scientific agreement that vaccines are safe and necessary bulwarks against outbreaks, they cite fears about mercury in vaccines, though the mercury-containing thimerosal has been removed from nearly all pediatric vaccines for over a decade. They note that a federal program, established by Congress in 1986 to compensate families for adverse reactions to vaccines, has awarded a cumulative $2.9 billion.

They trade stories of young children being injured, sometimes permanently, dismissing the position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that risk of permanent brain damage is so low that it can’t be definitively linked to vaccines.

Michelle Ford of Culver City said she founded the Vaccine Injury Awareness League after vaccines caused her eldest daughter to suffer from years of chronic diarrhea as well as digestive problems, mood swings and insomnia that persist to this day. Ahead of the first hearing for the vaccination measure, Senate Bill 277, she was in Sacramento, rallying bill opponents by railing against “medical tyranny.” She considers her 22-year-old daughter fortunate to have endured relatively minor injuries.

“I have interviewed mothers whose children are my daughter’s age and they have (protective) helmets, and diapers, have gut and intestinal issues, have brain damage, dare I say the word autism,” Ford said.

Such fears are helping to turn wealthy communities like Santa Monica into hubs of vaccine resistance, with the rates of parents seeking personal belief exemptions towering above the statewide average – and, doctors warn, degrading the “herd immunity” that shields children too young or sick to be vaccinated.

“I think it’s selfish,” said Nina Segil, a Santa Monica mother whose son has leukemia and cannot be vaccinated. “That choice is really putting everyone at risk.”

In 2014-15, the non-immunization rate for kindergartners in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified school district was 11.5 percent, more than quadruple the statewide rate of 2.5 percent. That still marked a drop from the previous rate of 14.8 percent. School nurses have been calling every parent who sought an exemption and urging them to vaccinate.

“There are a lot of generally well-intentioned people who aren’t as attuned to the history” of “communicable diseases that used to ravage humanity,” said Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, who previously sat on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified school board. “I have to err on the side of the science, and it’s overwhelming if you talk to the scientific community.”

Allen’s experience led him to join with Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, to push the legislation eliminating most parental opt-outs.

This year, a measles outbreak centered in Disneyland and two confirmed cases at a Santa Monica high school, including one that shuttered an on-site child care center, have spiked fear among families worried about vulnerable kids.

“It’s been a very hot topic,” said Agatha Perez, executive director of Hill and Dale preschool in Santa Monica, adding that parents have pressed her to make vaccines a requirement – a recurring refrain from nursery school administrators and business owners.

As of February, a Beverly Hills store offering youth music classes requires kids to be up to date on their shots, prompting both thank-you notes and hate mail. Others say they would mandate vaccines if not for the potential legal repercussions.

“I’d be glad to have the state make that decision for me to protect me from being sued,” said Sylvia Rath, director of the Little Village New School and an SB 277 supporter.

Keenly aware of the numbers, pro-vaccine parents pore through publicly available vaccination rates to decide where to send their kids to school. They describe pulling kids from mommy-and-me classes and vetting the guest list before letting children attend birthday parties. Friendships have come under strain.

“Any of my friends who I know don’t vaccinate their kids, I just tell them we’re not going to hang out until my kids are vaccinated,” said Grace Lowy, a 37-year-old Brentwood resident whose daughters are too young to be fully vaccinated, though she has considered vaccinating the younger one early. “It’s been weird,” she added, but “it’s not worth me risking it.”

Conflict flared during a hearing for SB 277 in a crowded room at the Capitol, where a baby-toting bill supporter angrily told an opponent to “go stand with your own people.” Bill opponents were removed for shouting over lawmakers, after which Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, recounted being the subject of “personal threats” for backing the bill.

In Santa Monica, a PTA leader who called the opt-out rate “alarmingly high” in some schools still warned about the tone used by pro-vaccination parents.

“As strongly as I may personally feel about the importance of parents vaccinating their children, I don’t appreciate some of the vitriol against the parents who have made those choices,” said Rochelle Fanali, president of the Santa Monica-Malibu PTA Council, which recently voted to back the district’s vaccine campaign. “It just sort of makes those parents feel really disrespected and want to dig their heels in.”

Parental vaccine caution falls along a spectrum. Some, like Assembly member and new mother Autumn Burke, favor spacing out a vaccine schedule that suggests six shots within the first two months of life.

“I wanted to make sure (my daughter) was vaccinated because I want her protected, but I wanted to take every precaution possible,” said Burke, a Democrat from Los Angeles who is getting her daughter one shot a month, “but when your child does get a little fever after each vaccination you just want to be extra careful.”

Parents with that concern find a sympathetic ear in Dr. Jay Gordon, a Santa Monica pediatrician who said he encourages vaccination but questions the recommended schedule.

“People who are making the choices that they think are best for their families, people who have every intention of vaccinating but would like to do it differently, they are being shamed,” Gordon said. “They are being illegally barred from schools and play groups.”

There’s no evidence that the prescribed schedule is harmful, said Dennis Woo, a pediatrician with UCLA. He said the vaccine debate highlights the intersection of personal independence and public welfare, with misinformation driving concerns about vaccines.

“There’s a lot of crazy stuff on the Internet,” Woo said. “It kind of equates to urban legend. It takes on a life of its own.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

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