Opinion: Palo Alto not immune to misconceptions about disease

Dhara Yu, Author

The recent measles outbreak in the United States has raised some fears about public health safety, especially in schools, where unvaccinated children could potentially be exposed the the measles virus. Photo by Nika Woodfill.
The recent measles outbreak in the United States has raised some fears about public health safety, especially in schools, where unvaccinated children could potentially be exposed the the measles virus. Photo by Nika Woodfill.

A recent measles outbreak that has affected at least 141 people across 17 states, including two in Santa Clara County, has sparked a national conversation about the importance of vaccinations in maintaining public health.

Something of this magnitude, the reemergence of a potentially life-threatening disease, would usually generate much public discourse in Palo Alto. But alas, save for the occasional diatribe found on Palo Alto Online’s Town Square, our reaction to the outbreak has been pretty subdued. After all, we Palo Altans have been entirely responsible when it comes to getting our shots, and as rational, highly scientific beings, completely acknowledge the necessity of vaccinations in preserving public health. We all know that it’s really just the uneducated, impoverished, and/or religious fundamentalist demographic groups that refuse to get their kids vaccinated and essentially allow infectious diseases to proliferate in the population.

But that’s not true.

Contrary to popular belief, the anti-vaccination movement is most prevalent in wealthy, educated and generally liberal enclaves. Take, for example, the cities of Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. In these affluent suburbs, droves of parents have filled out personal belief exemptions, or PBEs, meaning that their children can attend school despite not having the required shots because they have a moral objection to the vaccines. According to an an exposé written by The Hollywood Reporter in 2014, close to 70 percent of parents have submitted personal belief exemptions in certain Southern California private schools, making the vaccination rates at those schools lower than those found in some developing countries.

Thankfully, the percentage of unvaccinated kids in Palo Alto is not even close to those frighteningly high numbers, and several schools in PAUSD  have a perfect or near-perfect vaccination record. That being said, data shows that there is a minuscule, surreptitious anti-vax movement within our city, and we need to pay attention.

According to information from ShotsForSchool.org, an affiliate of the California Department of Public Health, approximately six percent of kindergarteners at Addison Elementary School in Palo Alto are inadequately vaccinated because their parents have submitted PBEs. This number seems laughably insignificant, but with a disease as infectious as measles, these few unvaccinated children could pose a serious threat to other students, especially those with compromised immune systems who, for medical reasons, cannot be vaccinated. Individuals with weak immune systems are highly susceptible to contracting illnesses, and have virtually no defense against disease. If I was a parent of a child who cannot receive the proper shots for medical reasons, I would, rightfully so, be very scared about this measles outbreak.

We believe ourselves to be an enlightened and progressive community; the importance and infallibility of science is stressed by a great many. Yet somehow, there are people who apparently spurn medical facts (vaccines do NOT cause autism) and potentially put people’s lives in jeopardy. Beyond being just plain wrong about the science behind vaccinations, anti-vaccination folks are morally negligent and show a wanton disregard for both their children’s health and the general wellbeing of the public.

Though its proponents aren’t vocal, nor is it widely accepted, the anti-vax movement has somehow seeped into Palo Alto. This goes to show that even a city heralded as an epicenter of technological progress isn’t immune to the dogma of this illogical campaign.

The vast majority of Palo Altans dutifully take their children to the doctor’s office for the proper shots and willingly comply with medical requirements, but in some ways, it seems almost as if we’ve forgotten what damage infectious disease can inflict upon us. After years of relative safety and no large-scale epidemics (other than the largely underground HIV/AIDS epidemic) in the United States over the past few decades, infectious disease is no longer at the forefront of our minds. In fact, we seem to be amnesic when it comes to maladies: The 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak, the most devastating pandemic in the history of mankind, is but an obscure blurb in a dusty history textbook. Polio, smallpox, tuberculosis and other dastardly diseases that terrified and crippled the U.S. population less than a century ago are rarely mentioned, even by medical practitioners. Advances in medicine over the past 50 years or so have successfully assuaged our fears, and as a result, we’ve become almost ignorant of the horrors brought about by infectious disease.

In our never-ending race to innovate, and move society forward scientifically, we sometimes lose sight of the past. It’s imperative that we continue to progress but remain cognizant of our history. We can’t forget why we get shots and work actively to improve medicine: T0 protect ourselves, to the best of our abilities, from the indiscriminate onslaught of germs.

This current measles outbreak is a formidable reminder that a select few in one of the most highly educated and affluent communities — our community — are rejecting well-established medical claims in favor of rhetoric from anti-vax demagogues. But more importantly, the rise in measles cases across the United States demonstrates that we haven’t conquered disease; clearly, we have quite a bit of work to do as a nation if we want to avoid future public health disasters. Those of us who have been properly vaccinated have already solved part of the problem. The next step is to move away from our collective sense of complacency. I’m not saying that we need to go out and start what would essentially be a witch-hunt for all people who may be opposed to vaccinations. What we do need to do is acknowledge that infectious disease has not been eradicated, and be more aware of the fact that it poses a very real threat to our livelihood.