Whooping cough is coming back into style like Pogs and public health officials are starting to worry the retro trend owes itself to the fact that an awful lot of parents are opting out of immunizations for their children, nowhere more so than at private schools, where wealthier parents are able to spread five vaccinations out over several years, and have the luxury of staying home to take care of their children should they grow itchy with a pox.
Though several major studies have disputed the idea that vaccinations are responsible for a whole host of collateral conditions (such as autism), health officials credit the upward-creeping vaccination opt-out rate to the belief that vaccines are more trouble than they're worth. Possibly as a result of the increase in opt-out rates, the U.S. is in the midst of its worst whooping cough epidemic in five decades, with almost 25,000 and 13 deaths. Health officials believe that an immunization rate of about 90 percent in all communities (including schools) is crucial for preventing a potential outbreak of some long-dormant epidemic of whooping cough, let's just say, which doctors warn is really not as jaunty and hilarious as it sounds.
The AP found that private schools in California seem to have a stubbornly high rate of opt-outs. About 15 percent of the 1,650 private schools the state surveyed didn't reach that recommended 90 percent threshold, compared with five percent of public schools, and though parents have many and varied reasons — religious beliefs, concerns that the shots could cause even more insidious illnesses and prevent children from developing the strong immune systems that come from eating dirt and pricking their fingers on rusty nails — for not vaccinating their children, researchers are a little baffled about why so many private school parents are starting to eschew immunization.
Parental mistrust of vaccines aside, health officials are really starting to worry that, if the opt-out trend continues, a whooping cough epidemic could get out of hand. According to Dr. Robert Schechter, medical officer with the Immunization Branch of the California Department of Public Health, healthcare providers in California are "very concerned that those schools are places where disease can spread quite rapidly through the school and into the community, should it get introduced." This anxiety spurred the state Legislature to approve a bill requiring parents considering not immunizing their kids to at least discuss vaccinations with a pediatrician or school nurse before letting information (and misinformation) floating around the internets completely inform their decisions.
Still, parents who are determined not to immunize their kids already regard the new legislation as meddlesome, and probably won't seriously consider vaccinating their kids anyway. The state's overall kindergarten immunization rate is stable at about 91 percent, but the AP notes that among smaller pockets of "Waldorf schools" — a loose confederation of schools founded under the 19th century philosophical prattlings of Rudolf Steiner — the rate is much lower, stoking the danger for outbreaks. For example, in 2008, the East Bay Waldorf School in El Sobrante suffered a whooping cough outbreak that affected more than 12 students, eight of them kindergartners. That school, gloomily notes the AP, had an immunization rate of less than 50 percent.