Needle in a Haystack: Anti-Vaccination on Campus

Needle in a Haystack: Anti-Vaccination on Campus

illustration by Sam Ko

A wave of frustration washed over Angela Wheaton (Sirus ’19) when she saw the vaccination policies of her son’s college, forcing him to receive a potentially dangerous injection.

“[My older son] Noah, and Sirus soon, did have to have some kind of inoculation to be admitted to his college,” Wheaton said. “He could not attend the school unless he had this vaccine, which irked me, because I like to research the pros and cons of the vaccine myself.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, vaccinations have seen opposition in recent years, especially following the publication of the Wakefield paper alleging that autism was linked to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines (MMR) in 1998. However, pro-vaccine scientists such as Dr. Peter Hotez, professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and holder of the Texas Children’s Hospital Endowed Chair in pediatrics, have rejected paper’s claims.

“Vaccines are the most important public health invention we have in terms of saving lives,” Hotez said. “It’s the most successful and cost-effective.”

Vania Nguyen (Meera Sastry ’19), a pediatrician at Providence St. John’s Health Center, said she’s seen many parents concerned with MMR vaccines.

“Parents come in and say they want to get vaccines, but they’re scared,” Nguyen said. “It’s okay for them to be scared because they don’t know, and they hear so many lies, so many unfounded truths.”

Nguyen said vaccines also allow for herd immunity to vaccines.

“Herd immunity is when you have a small percentage of people without the vaccine, but the overwhelming majority has it, which protects most of us,” Nguyen said. “If you have a huge amount of people who are immune to the disease, you don’t pass it on in the community, so then you protect the smaller amount.”

Izzy Yanover ’19, who is immunocompromised, is unable to receive live vaccines. Yanover said she feels that those who do not support vaccinations are ableist.

“I think that [anti-vaccination] can be harmful to people who have autism or ADHD because these people are basically saying that I would rather have my kids die from general disease rather than be diagnosed with autism or ADHD,” Yanover said. “That’s my biggest concern, and also I don’t know of any doctors who say you shouldn’t get vaccinated because of this. It’s not supported by scientists.”

Prompted by a measles outbreak affecting 131 Californians, California passed new legislation in 2015 banning personal and religious belief exemptions at daycare, preschool and K-12 schools. Previously, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that at certain schools, parents filed these exemptions at rates as high as 60 percent.

California now only allows exemptions from vaccines for medical reasons. According to the California Department of Public Health, overall kindergarten vaccination rates rose from 92.8 percent to 95.6 percent after the law was passed. However, The Los Angeles Times wrote that the number of schools where more than 10 percent of students had a medical exemption to vaccinations doubled.

Dorit Reiss, professor of law at UC Hastings who specializes in vaccine law, said that the rise in medical exemptions for vaccines is small overall but affects certain regions more than others.

“While that is worrying, it is still a small exception,” Reiss said. “They make up less than one percent of the population. The problem is that they’re concentrated in some schools and not others.”

According to an investigation by The Hollywood Reporter, the schools most heavily affected by anti-vaccination are ones in affluent regions of Los Angeles like Santa Monica or Beverly Hills. Reiss said that she believes a number of factors result in the prevalence anti-vaccination attitudes among the wealthy.

“People with real resource problems and survival struggles don’t have the time to imagine downfalls with vaccines,” Reiss said. “The other part is that people who are affluent have more confidence in their knowledge relative to experts, so they’re more likely to challenge reality.”

In Los Angeles, which has a thriving culture based on fitness and wellness, holistic approaches to health are common, especially in the yoga community.

However, because of this focus on nontraditional medicines, there is a significant anti-vaccination sect in the yoga community, according to the NIH.

“Within the yoga community, because it is very focused on holistic health and alternative medicine, they look at a lot of eastern medicine and see how they can use that more, so I think [anti-vaccination attitudes] are pretty popular, unfortunately,” upper school yoga teacher Cindy Gannon said.

Additionally, Wheaton said she abstains from vaccinations because they are rooted in anti-blackness.

“They’re going to try [the Prevnar vaccine] on poor people who have nobody to advocate for them and use them as guinea pigs,” Wheaton said. “Many years ago, there were prisoners that they would try these vaccines on. Historically, there are cases where they would use inmates, especially young black men who are incarcerated, to test these vaccines.”

In a Chronicle survey of 333 students, while only three percent of respondents said their family opposed the school’s vaccination requirement, 29 percent of respondents said they had not or planned not to receive the flu vaccine this year.

Wheaton said that neither she nor her two sons have ever received a flu shot, and she said she’s wary of side effects.

Clay Skaggs ’20 said he never receives the flu shot since he thinks it is ineffective.

“The vaccines are not protective against it because it changes, especially since it’s just a speculation of what the virus will be, not the actual disease,” Skaggs said. “I agree that it will lower your chances of getting the flu, but I’d want to get it now while I’m younger and healthier.”

Despite the fact that Gannon supports longer-lasting vaccines such as those given at birth, she said she is opposed to the flu vaccine.

“This is my experience with the flu shot: they put the virus in your body so you build up antibodies against that disease, but what happens with a lot of people is that they get the flu shot and instantly they’re sick,” Gannon said. “If you’re in some place like a school setting, you have to be more mindful about getting shots because you’re around so many people.”

As an alternative, many individuals against vaccination encourage families to use more derivative medicines that focus on holistic well-being.
Gannon said she hasn’t received the vaccine in many years but rarely is diagnosed with the flu. She agrees more with those in the yoga community when it comes to flu shots, using antibacterial essential oils to compensate for lack of the vaccine.

Nguyen said while the flu shot isn’t always perfectly accurate, she recommends that people still receive it to guard against any potential illnesses, and Hotez said he thinks that people should receive the flu shot every year.

“Eighty thousand people died from influenza last year, including two hundred children, most of whom were not vaccinated,” Hotez said. “Thousands of people died in the flu epidemic last year, and many were not vaccinated.”

Gannon said that she personally does not agree with the beliefs of people who support anti-vaccination. Her nephew who is not vaccinated is homeschooled because his immune system is at risk.

“[Anti-vaccination people] listen to the people who are telling them not to eat romaine lettuce, but the moment they’re told to vaccinate children they view that as bad,” Gannon said. “I don’t think vaccines are linked to autism. I don’t think that giving your children vaccinations gives them ADHD.”

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