Low vaccination rates at many Westside schools put students at risk for measles

The measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is 99%-effective, health officials say. Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

The measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is 99%-effective, health officials say.
Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

By Gary Walker

With state public health officials designating the 107 confirmed cases of measles in California as “a large outbreak” of the disease, more than two dozen Westside primary schools have kindergarten vaccination rates low enough to be considered at serious risk for the spread of measles.

The California Department of Public Health describes schools with immunization rates below 95% as at least somewhat vulnerable to measles and other communicable diseases.

Department records for the 2013-14 school year, however, identify numerous schools in Santa Monica, Venice, Playa Vista, Westchester, Marina del Rey, Mar Vista, Del Rey and surrounding neighborhoods as having kindergarten vaccination rates of lower than 75% for measles and other communicable diseases.

(Click here for Kindergarten Vaccination Rates for 2013-14 School Year)

Concern is especially high in Santa Monica, where a Santa Monica High School baseball coach was diagnosed with measles last month and a campus child care center was shut down last week after an infant tested positive for the disease. The child care center reopened last Friday to admit children whose parents provided proof that they weren’t at risk of catching measles.

According to the school district, 11.5% of students in the Santa Monica – Malibu Unified School District, including 7% of SaMo High students, have parents who filed personal belief exemption waivers to opt them out of required immunizations.

Freshman state Sen. Ben Allen (D- Santa Monica), a former Santa Monica – Malibu school board member, announced last week that he is co-sponsoring legislation to repeal state immunization waivers for reasons other than medical necessity.

“We’ve triggered the tipping point where public health is in jeopardy,” Allen told NBC 4 reporter Conan Nolan during a televised interview. In a statement about his legislation, Allen said “the high number of unvaccinated students is jeopardizing public health not only in schools but in the broader community.  We need to take steps to keep our schools safe and our students healthy.”

Gail Pinsker, a spokeswoman for the Santa Monica – Malibu Unified School District, said schools have sent letters urging parents to get their children vaccinated and are fully behind Allen’s effort.

“We’re absolutely supportive of any action that legislators can take to get more students immunized,” Pinsker said. “We continue to reach out to families to encourage them to get immunized.”

Vaccinations don’t guarantee protection from measles — the Los Angeles Times reported that five out of 42 confirmed measles patients with a known immunization status had been fully vaccinated — but are extremely effective at preventing the spread of the disease when enough of the population is immunized.

“Measles is highly contagious and highly preventable through vaccinations. Therefore, the Department of Public Health recommends that anyone not already immunized against measles gets immunized at this time. Two doses of measles-containing vaccine known as the MMR vaccine are more than 99% effective in preventing measles,” said Dr. Gil Chavez, an epidemiologist who is deputy director of the California Department of Public Health’s Center for Infectious Diseases.

Opting out of the safe zone

Personal belief exemptions are in many cases the driving force behind low vaccination rates at area public, private and charter schools.

Ocean Charter School in Del Rey had a personal belief exemption rate of 52% among its 77 kindergarteners for the 2013-14 school year, according to state statistics. In a letter sent home with students last Friday, school officials urged parents to consider vaccinations “given the high percentage of students [school-wide] not vaccinated against measles at all — 36.9%.”

Playa Vista Elementary School had 67.3% of its 110 kindergarteners vaccinated for measles and 60.9% up-to-date with all other vaccines last year.

Playa Vista Elementary School Principal Rebecca Johnson said vaccination rates are higher this year throughout the K-5 school, with the subject more at the front of parents’ minds.

“We think our immunization rate is closer to 88% this year,” Johnson said. “We are having people ask about our rate. The people who are the most concerned are those who will have children in kindergarten next year. We encourage our parents to vaccinate their children, but state law allows personal belief exemptions.”

State health officials suspect that children are often enrolled in schools on the condition that they receive required vaccinations but don’t ever get them because schools lack resources to track the paperwork.

LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westside neighborhoods, said the school district should do all it can to inform families about the importance of vaccinations and direct funding for nurses to schools that need them if lack of follow-up is contributing to lower immunization rates.

“We not only have to target resources to vulnerable school communities, we must also be prepared in case of an outbreak. Because this does have epidemic potentiality,” he said.

Coeur d’Alene Avenue Elementary in Venice had a 66.7% rate of measles vaccinations and 50.9% immunization rate for other diseases among its 108 kindergarten students this past school year, according to state statistics.

Canyon Elementary Charter in Santa Monica posted similar numbers — 63.1% of 65 kindergarteners vaccinated for measles, 58.5% for all other vaccines.

On the other end of the spectrum, St. Monica Catholic Elementary School in Santa Monica posted a 96.7% immunization rate among its 30 kindergarteners last year, and 95% of the 40 kindergarteners at the private Carlthorp School in Santa Monica were vaccinated.

“To be honest, I think our parents understand the importance of vaccines and they seem to be very like-minded on this issue,” said Calthorp Head of School Dee Menizies. “Of course we encourage them to get their children vaccinated, but we’re just fortunate that we have parents who seem to understand the importance of keeping children healthy,” Menzies said.

‘Breaking up’ with anti-vax patients

The measles outbreak that began in December at Disneyland in Anaheim has brought renewed attention to parents who oppose immunizing their children.

In recent years, actress Jenny McCarthy and other celebrities have argued against inoculations for children based on beliefs about pharmaceuticals or fear that vaccines have been linked to autism. The anti-vaccine movement began after a 1998 study — now thoroughly discredited as bunk science based on falsified data — claimed a causational relationship between vaccinations and childhood autism.

Dr. Danelle Fisher, a Westchester pediatrician, said she no longer accepts young patients whose parents do not want them to be vaccinated.

“I’ve learned over the years that if we have a philosophical difference about vaccines, we probably won’t agree on other treatment methods. While I respect their opinion, I recommend that they find another pediatrician,” said Fisher, who has practiced at Westchester Pediatrics on La Tijera Boulevard for the past 12 years.

Fisher recalled a parent who told her “I saw Jenny McCarthy talk about it on ‘Ophra’ and I believe it because Oprah is my god” during a visit about three years ago. “There was nothing I could say to answer that,” Fisher said.

While wealthier neighborhoods tend to produce more parents who are skeptical of vaccinations, lower-income parents appear to be very likely to ensure that their kids receive them.

Venice Family Clinic Associate Medical Director Karen Lamp says the clinic has seen an increase of patients seeking vaccinations since the Disneyland outbreak.

“There’s a lot more concern about the measles,” said Lamp. “As a physician, it’s very frustrating to hear that some families aren’t getting vaccinated.”

The clinic has a vaccination rate of 94% among the children it serves, Lamp said, and the vast majority of the families that use the clinic for their health needs are lower-income families. Many are children of immigrant parents who have seen infectious diseases spread quickly in their native countries, she said.

Debate over vaccines has ignited fierce debate in online social media parenting groups.

“We’re seeing a lot of activity, pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine, on our Facebook page. It’s a very hot topic,” said Mar Vista resident Sarah Auerswald, co-founder of momsla.com and the founder of marvistamom.com blog.

Parents who expressed opposition to Allen’s bill limiting personal belief exemptions did not respond to requests for interviews.

Auerswald, who said she was mortified by the thought of her sons attending a school at risk for the spread of communicable diseases, is a supporter of vaccinations for children and recalled falling out with a friend who brought a child with chicken pox to a PTA meeting.

“I told her that she was putting everyone who brought their children to the meeting at risk. I was livid,” Auerswald said.

State Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D- Marina del Rey) has not yet fully reviewed Allen’s legislation but believes school-age kids should be vaccinated.

“As the mother of a seven-month-old, my choice will be to vaccinate for health and public safety,” she said.