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Sharp Rise In Oregon Parents
Saying No To Vaccines

By Wendy Y. Lawton (Oregon
August 26, 2001

               The number of Oregon children missing one or more vaccinations
               because of religious reasons increased sharply during the last school year.
               For nearly a decade, the percentage of children with religious exemptions
               for immunizations hovered around 1 percent, according to the Oregon
               Health Division. This spring, the figure jumped from 1.4 percent to 2.7
               percent. That's at least 3,600 kids.

               But many families aren't finding faith. They're joining the anti-vaccination
               movement. Convinced that shots are dangerous, unnecessary or
               unhealthy, a small but passionate group of parents is using a broadly
               worded state rule to opt out of shots required for school and day-care

               The choice is legal. Under Oregon's exemption rule, religion is defined as
               "any system of beliefs, practices or ethical values." Some parents do
               believe immunizations go against God's will. But a church letter isn't
               required. Parents simply sign a state health form. No questions asked.

               Hank Collins, the health director in Jackson County, put it plainly: "That
               rule is so big, you could drive a truck through it."

               Jackson County has one of the most persistently high exemption rates in
               the state. Ashland, in particular, is a hot spot. County figures show that
               an estimated 12 percent of Ashland children have religious exemptions for
               shots. At one preschool, the number of kids exempted runs as high as 34

               Public health officials and pediatricians are taking notice. A health
               department draft plan for Jackson County calls for everything from focus
               groups to immunization fairs. Fearing disease outbreaks in the county and
               other places, advocates this fall will launch a statewide vaccine education

               "Vaccines aren't perfect," said Dr. Mary Brown, a Bend pediatrician.
               "But the risks of adverse reactions are far less than the risks from the
               diseases themselves. I've treated children over the years who had seizures
               and hearing loss from haemophilus influenzae. My brother had polio."

               But many parents -- and young doctors -- have never seen polio, measles
               or other illnesses that largely have been wiped out by vaccines.

               They do, however, hear stories about kids who've had fevers, speech
               problems or other side effects after getting shots. Or they've read claims
               that vaccines cause autism, asthma, diabetes, brain damage.

               "I'm not ready," said Victoria Johnson, a Medford mother, "to play that
               Russian roulette."

               Fear and uncertainty aren't the only reasons Johnson and other parents
               opt out of shots. These families, on the whole, say they are health
               conscious. They breast-feed, buy organic, forbid junk food.

               So the idea of injecting children with live or dead viruses, often mixed
               with chemicals such as formaldehyde, goes against their parenting
               principles. It also goes against their belief in the body's ability to protect
               and heal itself.

               Take John Schmidt. The Silverton chiropractor has never vaccinated his
               six children, including two grown sons who contracted whooping cough
               as children. Schmidt said the boys nearly died.

               "But today they're healthy," he said. "Statistically, I was better off with
               my decision."

               Distrust grows Slapping themselves with labels ranging from pro-life
               Republican to environment-minded Democrat, these anti-vaccine parents
               don't like being told what to do. They distrust drug companies and federal
               regulators. They do their homework. And the more they read, the more
               they question.

               The Internet offers plenty of fodder.

               Some online information is true. Shots can cause fevers and, in rare
               cases, severe reactions such as seizures. Thimerosal, a preservative
               containing mercury that recently was phased out of vaccines, is under fire
               in Oregon courts and under study by the National Institutes of Health.

               But other postings are not proved. Controlled research studies have not
               clinched a connection between vaccines and disorders such as autism.

               Yet some possibilities are packaged as certainties.

               There's no doubt, for example, that the number of children diagnosed
               with autism is increasing. At the same time, the number of shots in
               Oregon required to enter kindergarten has gone from 10 in 1997 to 15
               today. Some families believe there's a connection.

               Or parents have heard of -- or seen -- children falling ill after getting a
               shot. Was the vaccine the culprit?

               There is always a chance, said Dr. Paul Cieslak, manager of the Health
               Division's communicable disease unit. But Cieslak said the environment,
               genes and general health also could be to blame.

               "Too many people are making cause-effect associations that can't be
               supported," Cieslak said. "The science isn't there."

               No absolute proof Science, however, is at a disadvantage in the brewing
               vaccine battle.

               The Internet, where many safety claims crop up, is quick and cheap.
               Research, which tests such claims, is slow and expensive. Science can't
               give some parents what they're really after: irrefutable proof that shots
               aren't to blame for elusive and incurable conditions such as autism.

               The research is reassuring, said Dr. Robert Chen, chief of vaccine safety
               and development activity at the federal Centers for Disease Control and
               Prevention. But it is always evolving.

               "We don't use absolutes in science," Chen said. "We can't, because we're
               not God."

               Improvements in vaccine study and surveillance are under way. The
               CDC will spend $1.7 million this year to start a national network of
               research centers that will train doctors to better spot and treat adverse
               reactions and investigate what role biology and genetics may play.

               Barbara Loe Fisher, head of the National Vaccine Information Center, a
               watchdog group, said such an individualized study will go a long way
               toward addressing parents' concerns.

               "For too long, we've focused on a one-size-fits-all approach," Fisher said.
               "But let's start looking at why some children don't handle vaccines. If you
               don't look for the answers, you won't find them."

               Focus on today Public health officials aren't focusing on the future.
               They're worried about now.

               Unvaccinated children weaken what's known as "herd immunity," a
               community's ability to ward off infectious disease when enough people
               are protected. Dips in preschool vaccination rates, for example, helped
               fuel a national measles epidemic between 1989 and 1991 that sickened
               55,622 people, sent 11,251 to hospitals and killed 125 children and

               In Oregon, the viral infection gained its foothold in Jackson County.
               Dozens of cases were recorded, and hundreds of young people were sent
               home from schools. In Kennewick, Wash., two women died.

               When outbreaks occur, kids who haven't been immunized are at much
               greater risk of getting sick. A study published in December in the Journal
               of American Medical Association showed that exempted kids were 22
               times more likely to contract measles and six times more likely to get
               whooping cough than peers who had shots.

               But outbreaks aren't common, said Nancy Church, manager of infection
               control at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland. And
               parents hear more about vaccine problems than they do about the
               diseases they prevent. Church said it's time for a reality check.

               "Parents need to hear both sides of the issue," she said. "We need to get
               all the facts on the table."

               That's why the Oregon Partnership to Immunize Children, the pro-shot
               coalition Church leads, will bring a CDC physician to Medford and
               Portland to speak in October. Health care providers will learn about the
               anti-vaccine movement and how to answer parents' questions with
               proven data.

               At the meetings, and in the coming months, the coalition will distribute
               dozens of vaccine education guides. A video, "Vaccines: Separating Fact
               from Fear," will be sent to private doctors offices and public clinics.

               The materials are unabashedly pro-vaccine. But the groups that created
               them don't take drug company money; that's a deliberate decision made
               to gain credibility with skeptics.

               A handful of anti-vaccine advocates will continue their own campaign to
               change Oregon's immunization law. A bill to allow parents to opt out of
               shots for philosophical reasons died in the Legislature this year. Bob
               Snee, a Portland parent and attorney, plans to reintroduce the idea in

               "If you decide to vaccinate, that's your choice," Snee said. "But parents
               who make another decision should have a choice, too." You can reach
               Wendy Lawton at 503-294-5019 or by e-mail at

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