FEATURE: Taking Shots, Vaccine debate spikes the Tetons

By on March 3, 2015
Children and parents queue outside the Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1960 to receive vaccines. (Photo credit: Cincinnati Museum Center/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Children and parents queue outside the Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1960 to receive vaccines. (Photo credit: Cincinnati Museum Center/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

For more than 90 percent of U.S. residents, a shot in the arm is a childhood rite of passage. But a great debate this year has offered deeper insight into how and why parents are making decisions in medical offices across the nation. And in Teton Valley and Jackson Hole, those decisions mirror the emerging attitudes and decision-making all good parents are doing on behalf of their children’s well-being: to vaccinate or not.

Of course the answers are not clear-cut and there are extremes on both sides of the argument. In early February, conservative news and radio personality Glenn Beck, who has made numerous appearances in Driggs, Idaho, in recent years, questioned the measles outbreak in California calling it a “government hoax” in which the feds hope to increase vaccines in the country.

On the pro-vaccination side, this past week late night entertainer Jimmy Kimmel produced a comedic skit with serious undertones when he invited medical doctors to chastise parents who do not and will not vaccine their children.

Social media continues to light up as news feeds roll day and night with politicians, parents and the public weighing in.

Local and state health organizations continue to urge parents and guardians to vaccine their children, specifically against measles in light of the outbreak in California, which Center for Disease Control is blaming unvaccinated people for infecting more than 140 and placing thousands more in quarantine. That vaccine is known as “MMR” and includes protection from measles, mumps and rubella.

While parents on both sides of the argument have strong feelings, all are just trying to do what they believe is the best for their children.

“Vaccines are unavoidably unsafe, meaning the product may injure my child,” said Dondi Tondro-Smith, a Jackson mom who has decided to not vaccinate her child. “It’s Russian roulette. It may be a million to one, but I can’t live with that statistic. Who is to say that it may be your kid having a reaction?”

Input from MDs

As of February, Idaho and Wyoming have no reported cases of measles; however, more than 100 cases have been reported in neighboring states such as California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. According to both Eastern Idaho Public Health and Wyoming Department of Health, many of the measles cases originated from exposure to a case of measles in California’s Disneyland and/or California Adventure.

According to Wyoming Department of Health, there has not been a case of measles reported in Wyoming since 2010.

“However, the current outbreak is spreading, including to the neighboring states of Nebraska, Colorado and Utah,” said Dr. Wendy Braund, state health officer and Public Health Division senior administrator with WDH. “If the outbreak continues to grow, it’s possible we could see measles in Wyoming.”

According to WDH, the measles is a highly contagious disease that spreads through the air via coughs and sneezes. Symptoms of measles generally begin within seven to 14 days after exposure. The disease typically begins with a fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes and sore throat and is followed by a rash that spreads over the body. It can also cause severe complications like pneumonia and encephalitis.

“Measles is not new but is something we haven’t seen often over the last several decades thanks to vaccination,” Braund said. “In fact, measles was declared eliminated from the United States in 2000. The cases reported from time to time in this country are typically brought in when people visit from other places where measles is more common or when unvaccinated Americans get measles while traveling.”

Braund said those most at risk of being infected with measles are people who have had no doses or only one dose of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine or who have not had the measles.

“Vaccines prevent diseases such as measles and save lives,” Braund said. “Because vaccines have been effective in making so many diseases uncommon, they may be taken for granted by some people. When you don’t have experience or familiarity with a disease, you may be less likely to see the need for immunization.”

According to Eastern Idaho Public Health, there is currently a mumps outbreak in northern Idaho and the Boise area.

“Due to the national measles outbreak and the state mumps outbreak, we have definitely seen an increase in people seeking immunizations,” said Rosemarie “Mimi” Taylor, Public Information Officer for Eastern Idaho Public Health. “Measles and mumps, along with rubella, are all vaccine-preventable diseases. We continue to strongly encourage people to check their immunization status and to talk to public health or their private healthcare provider about getting up-to-date with their vaccinations.”

Medical doctors on both sides of Teton Pass are publicly urging parents to get their children vaccinated. Last week local pediatrician Travis Riddell called the current measles outbreak “more of a direct threat to our national health than the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.”

“No one holds a monopoly on truth, not even scientists and doctors,” wrote Riddell in a column in the Jackson Hole News&Guide. “When parents decide not to vaccinate the consequence is exactly what we are now experiencing with this measles outbreak. That decision can have devastating personal and community consciences – especially for those too young or too ill to get vaccinated.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all children receive their first MMR vaccine on or soon after their first birthday. A second dose is recommended between 4 and 6 years of age, before children start school. All healthcare workers are required to show proof of two MMR vaccines or provide proof of immunity. The vaccine has shown a 99 percent protection in patients receiving two doses.

Braund said those most at risk of being infected with measles are people who have had no doses or only one dose of the MMR vaccine or who have not had the measles.

“Vaccines prevent diseases such as measles and save lives,” Braund said. “Because vaccines have been effective in making so many diseases uncommon, they may be taken for granted by some people. When you don’t have experience or familiarity with a disease, you may be less likely to see the need for immunization.”

Braund said the measles vaccination is highly effective with studies showing more than 97 percent of people who receive two doses of vaccine are protected.

“Thankfully, the vast majority of Wyoming children are appropriately vaccinated before they begin school, which is required in Wyoming,” Braund said.

Harming the herd?

Seven of the eight parents interviewed who do not immunize their children declined to comment for this report with many saying that they feared they would be bullied or harassed in light of their decisions.

Dondi Tondro-Smith understands where these parents are coming from. She and her husband have decided not to vaccinate their daughter. When asked, Tondro-Smith feels comfortable with her decision and open to discussing the issue.

Tondro-Smith said she did her research. She read the books and looked at her life, her lifestyle and her child before she made the decision to not vaccinate. However, Tondro-Smith acknowledges that she could not make this decision without the countless others who came before her and decided to immunize, thus creating a safer environment for her and her family.

“We live in a first world country,” Tondro-Smith said. “I don’t live in Africa, I don’t live in China – I live in Jackson which is a bubble.”

The medical community defines this protection as “herd immunity,” which gives unvaccinated people protection based on the rest of the population vaccinating for diseases. There are thresholds, according to the CDC, such as a need for up to 95 percent of the population to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. This herd immunity would protect those who cannot receive the vaccination due to age or who have certain medical conditions.

Additionally, Tondro-Smith said, should an outbreak occur in Jackson and/or the surrounding area, she would likely revisit her position.

“If polio came to Jackson I would have to do my homework,” said Tondro-Smith. “But I’m not immunizing out of fear.”

Tondro-Smith said there is a reason that the government initiated the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, which compensates families whose children have suffered injuries from vaccines.

“Injury from vaccines do happen,” Tondro-Smith said. “Vaccinations can go bad. I don’t think we hear enough about that in the United States. Not all drugs are created equally. Unless you are a chemist or someone in the know, how do you know what preservative [in the vaccine] will go bad?”

Tondro-Smith said she considered an elongated vaccine schedule believing that as children develop their immune systems they continue to grow stronger. But at the end of the day, should she decide to enroll her daughter into a public school system (they currently home school), she would still opt-out of vaccinations.

Idaho allows for religious and philosophical reasons for public school students to opt-out of vaccines while Wyoming allows for religious reasons only.

“I don’t believe that because you are vaccinated you are safe,” said Tondro-Smith. “We want to keep our kid safe and there is a false sense of safety in our minds with vaccines. It’s never 100 percent. Look at the flu vaccine – it’s a guess year after year. It’s an educated guess, but it’s a guess.”

Emily Nichols found herself at a similar crossroads. A mother of two in Teton Valley, she said she was not in favor of vaccinations before she became a mother.

“I think I was surrounded by a lot of fear of what those vaccinations could do to children,” Nichols said. “Becoming a new mom, I started researching and finding my way with my husband on this topic and we found a place that felt comfortable for our family. At that time we thought we would vaccinate but do it on a limited schedule, not do all the vaccinations and not at the pace that was recommended. We just felt that giving brand new babies all that vaccine was a little insane. A ton of vaccinations seemed a little scary.”

The CDC recommends that a child from birth through 6 years of age receive 14 vaccines (not separate, some are administered together) for such diseases as chicken pox, the flu and whooping cough.

“We’ve spread them out quite a bit and we’re really behind schedule,” Nichols said. The only vaccine Nichols says she struggled with was the chicken pox vaccine. She said that she didn’t feel that the chicken pox was dangerous having had it as a child herself.

“It was hard for me to do the chicken pox vaccine because it didn’t seem necessary,” she said. “We ended up giving [our daughter] the chicken pox vaccine because of the pressure we received from other families and from the public school system. I don’t know if it was necessary. I am conflicted about that decision and feel a little disappointed in myself that I didn’t stand up to that pressure.”

The passionate debate will likely be ongoing.

“I get that modern medicine has done amazing things, but there are still questions,” Nichols said. “It makes me uneasy not knowing what could possibly happen. I will give my own perspective, but parents need to figure it out for themselves. You have to make those decisions for your family – that’s my approach. I can offer [my perspective] as a suggestion.”


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