Vashon: Ground zero among state anti-vaxxers

Let’s hope there aren’t many rusty nails on Vashon Island.

For most people, getting a puncture wound from a rusty nail would be no big deal. Clean it out, apply a Band-Aid and you’re good to go.

Someone who hasn’t had a tetanus shot, however, runs the risk of being infected by the C. tetani bacterium, which can cause the horribly painful and potentially fatal nervous system condition more commonly known as “lockjaw.” Thanks to widespread vaccination since the 1940s, however, mortality rates from tetanus have plummeted.

Now consider Vashon Island, where almost a quarter of children haven’t been immunized against tetanus – or against a litany of childhood diseases once considered largely obliterated in this country: whooping cough, measles, mumps, diphtheria and polio. Their parents have legally opted them out of the shots that might make the difference between life and death, sickness or health.

These parents have decided that they know better what’d good for a child’s health than the medical community, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

With an opt-out rate five times the state average, Vashon Island appears to be ground zero in Washington for anti-vaxxers. They cite “personal” objections to vaccination, not religious or medical ones. Unfortunately, that decision doesn’t just endanger their own children. They’re affecting the “herd immunity” of their community, which protects susceptible individuals from disease.

To attain herd immunity for measles, for example, about 83 to 94 percent of the population must be vaccinated. On Vashon, with less than 80 percent of the children vaccinated, that herd immunity is compromised.

An unvaccinated child can come down with measles, then infect other children who are either too young to be vaccinated or have an immune deficiency that prevents them from being vaccinated. That seems to be what happened recently at a Chicago-area day care center, where five infants were infected with measles.

Statewide, vaccination rates started improving after lawmakers made it slightly more burdensome to cite “personal” reasons for opting out. They required parents to get a signed declaration from a medical provider stating that the parents had been informed about the risks and benefits of vaccination. Today, 4.6 percent of the state’s children are unvaccinated, with Pierce County doing a little better at 3.9 percent. Vashon is a huge outlier at 23.1 percent of children opted out.

Generally, Americans support others’ right to make decisions for themselves and their children. But when it comes to childhood vaccinations, exercising that right shouldn’t be allowed to endanger other people’s children.

State lawmakers are on the right track with House Bill 2009, which would eliminate exemptions based on personal or philosophical reasons. It’s supported by Gov. Jay Inslee and the Washington State Medical Association.

Parents who feel strongly about vaccinations should consider home schooling their children. Even they have to admit that they don’t have the right to put others’ children at risk.