Ever since the first European settlers began rowing across Dalco Passage from Tacoma 150 years ago, Vashon Island has attracted nonconformists and skeptics.
Not so surprising then, that in tallies of communities in the United States where high percentages of people choose not to vaccinate their children, Vashon consistently comes out near the top.
The most recent reports from the state Department of Health show that last year parents of 23.1 percent of kindergartners in the Vashon Island School District legally opted out of vaccinations against diphtheria and tetanus, whooping cough, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, Hepatitis B and varicella.
That’s five times the state average.
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Overwhelmingly, the reasons Vashon parents cited on their legally required Certificate of Exemption forms were not religious or medical. More than 98 percent checked the box labeled “Personal.”
“When you push on the universe, it pushes back at you,” said Josh DeHaven, 30, a third-generation Vashon Islander and the father of three unvaccinated children. “All these other places are saying, ‘You have to vaccinate your children,’ and Vashon is saying, ‘No.’”
DeHaven and his wife, Chi, have three children, Noli, 3; Musik, 5; and Roots, 8.
DeHaven said he does not trust the pharmaceutical and medical industries, which he believes are motivated by profit. He believes doctors push vaccines to make money. He worries about side effects, and he doesn’t think the targeted diseases pose serious risks anymore.
“I’m not going to be sticking these needles in my arm or my kids’ arms unless I see a threat,” he said, “and I don’t see it. Some of this stuff is generations gone.”
The DeHavens do not represent the majority of Vashon Islanders, most of whom choose to vaccinate their children.
“I just don’t understand the argument against vaccines,” said Debbie Suchy, a clerk at a Vashon hardware store and the mother of four children, now all adults.
“My kids were vaccinated from Day 1,” she said. “To each his own — I get that. But if their child gets something and goes to school, it has a negative impact on my family. That’s not right.”
“Vashon is accepting of different lifestyle choices,” Suchy said, “You’re free to feel what you feel and think what you think. But with this issue there is a lot of controversy. I wouldn’t say there’s a backlash against people who don’t vaccinate, because that’s too strong a word, but it’s a very hot topic.”
Dr. Nicole Maxwell, a naturopathic physician with a one-person practice in Vashon’s main business area, said she tries to maintain a balance between those who support vaccinations and those who don’t.
“It’s an individual decision that depends on the family and the child’s health history and the child’s genetic makeup,” she said.
Maxwell said she generally supports vaccinations, but, unlike some doctors, she said, she would never think of denying care to anyone because they refuse to be vaccinated.
Only rarely does she attempt to change a patient’s mind on vaccinations, she said.
“I try to give a well-balanced view of the known facts that we have,” Maxwell said. “If I know it’s something like pertussis, I do try to sway them a little bit, if I know it’s high risk.”
Stephanie Knoder, owner of the tiny Pure Organic Café, which specializes in a style of food she calls “living, plant-based vegan,” said she is not strongly for or against vaccines.
She did say, though, that she sees a similarity in the way people accept vaccinations and the way people used to pay so little attention to the food they ate.
“People were blindly eating for so long, just basically taking people’s word for it and eating processed, packaged foods,” she said. “I think people should question everything — especially with the medical profession.
“I don’t have children, so I don’t know whether I would vaccinate or not,” Knoder said.
“I do know that both sides have the best interests of their kids in mind. They just want to protect their children and their families and they’re doing it the way they think is best.”