measles outbreak highlights debate

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measles outbreak highlights debate
Wed, 04-02-2008 - 11:17am

Southern California measles outbreak highlights vaccination debate
Genevieve Bookwalter - Sentinel staff writer

SANTA CRUZ -- An outbreak of measles in San Diego last month has illuminated a divide in Santa Cruz County over whether to vaccinate children.

In Watsonville 99 percent of children have received their immunizations for measles, mumps, polio and other potentially crippling and fatal childhood diseases, according to the county Health Services Agency. But in Santa Cruz 14 percent of children have parents who elected not to give their kids the shots, according the agency.

"It's very clear that there's a north-south divide," said Poki Namkung, the county's public health officer.

The significantly different numbers, she said, are not the result of a vaccine shortage in Santa Cruz. Instead, "these are highly educated, affluent people with health care coverage, who are choosing not to vaccinate their children," Namkung said.

The median salary in Watsonville is about $41,000, compared to $55,000 in Santa Cruz, according to city-data.com. The lower median salary does not stop Watsonville parents from vaccinating their kids. Instead, they represent the traditional thinking in the medical community -- that vaccines are necessary to protect kids from illnesses.

"Most of the Latino community believes that most of the vaccinations are a good thing for kids to prevent diseases," said Watsonville Councilman Antonio Rivas, who works as a counselor at Alisal High.

Those without health care often take advantage of
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federal programs that provide vaccines to low-income residents at no charge, Namkung said.

A majority of county residents agree and vaccinate their kids. In 2005, 92 percent of incoming kindergartners had their shots. But Santa Cruz County still has the third-highest percentage of kids who enter school without vaccination in the state.

Many parents who opt out cite concerns that there is a link between vaccination and autism. Medical studies have not found such a correlation but the fears persist, Namkung said. Others can't stand to stick needles into their newborn. Still others believe the risk of catching whooping cough or polio is so small that they would rather avoid what they say are potential side effects from the vaccines.

While California schools require parents to vaccinate their kids before enrolling them, state law allows mom and dad to opt out based on personal belief.

After 12 kids in San Diego came down with measles last month, county health leaders are paying special attention to those unvaccinated kids. The San Diego outbreak began after one unvaccinated child picked up the disease on a vacation to Switzerland.

Namkung said a similar outbreak could happen here, especially with a major university that attracts students from all over the world. An outbreak in Berkeley a few years ago started when an international UC student gave measles to others in the doctor's waiting room, Namkung said.

"We're in no sense an isolated community," she said.

But Santa Cruz County is isolated enough that Aptos resident Nancy Scarborough, 58, felt comfortable waiting to immunize her youngest daughter, Morgan, until she was 2.

"My feeling is that under the age of 2, you ought to just not mess with them," Scarborough said. After her second birthday, Scarborough's daughter received only polio and tetanus vaccines. As Morgan grows older, Scarborough said she can decide for herself what other shots she needs.

Santa Cruz resident Tammy O'Brien, 46, chose not to vaccinate any of her five children after suffering spinal meningitis as a child, which she attributes to vaccines of her own.

O'Brien stands by her decision, despite watching one daughter suffer whooping cough when she was 13 months old.

But attitudes like that infuriate Santa Cruz native Vera Hope, 79, who lost her mother and brother to polio during an epidemic that swept Santa Cruz in June 1944.

"When you see things like that, you think vaccinations are very great," Hope said. "Young people don't realize, during the summer you couldn't go swimming, go to the movies, you couldn't do any of these things because your parents were so afraid you would get polio."

These days, parents of unvaccinated children are unlikely to experience such a scenario, as most kids do have their shots, Namkung said. But if those children travel when they're older -- especially to developing countries -- they could pick up illnesses that would otherwise be prevented. Mumps, for example, can leave adult men sterile, Namkung said.

After studying vaccinations during her pregnancy, Mount Hermon resident Keidi Lewis, 31, said she decided to vaccinate her daughter, Adessa, when she was born nine months ago.

"I just put my faith in the medical establishment," Lewis said. "I think the people who aren't vaccinated are less worried because everyone else is getting vaccinated. So my kid getting it is going to protect their kid. I feel good about it."

http://www.mercurynews.com/centralcoast/ci_8747638