A whooping cough epidemic is sweeping across California—and 94% of the cases involve children and infants, for whom the illness can be fatal. Low vaccination rates are responsible for the outbreak. But, surprisingly, it's the most affluent, educated parents who are opting out of immunization programs.
[Image: Indiana Department of Child Services]
Nearly 8,000 cases have been reported so far this year, and most of them, numbering more than 1,300 are located in Los Angeles County. The Hollywood Reporter reviewed immunization records submitted to the state and found that:
Wealthy Westside kids — particularly those attending exclusive, entertainment-industry-favored child care centers, preschools and kindergartens — are far more likely to get sick (and potentially infect their siblings and playmates) than other kids in L.A. The reason is at once painfully simple and utterly complex: More parents in this demographic are choosing not to vaccinate their children as medical experts advise. They express their noncompliance by submitting a form known as a personal belief exemption (PBE) instead of paperwork documenting a completed shot schedule.
The number of PBEs being filed is scary. The region stretching from Malibu south to Marina del Rey and inland as far as La Cienega Boulevard (and including Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills) averaged a 9.1 percent PBE level among preschoolers for the 2013-14 school year — a 26 percent jump from two years earlier. By comparison, L.A. County at large measured 2.2 percent in that period.
The results of this research is vividly displayed when plotted on an interactive map, showing more that 3,700 daycare, preschool and kindergarten facilities, color-coded to indicate which ones have the highest risk of infection. At least a dozen (image below) have a PBE rate of over 50%.
In light of Jenny McCarthy's high-profile role in the anti-vaxxer movement, it's not necessarily surprising that the Hollywood glitterati are among the growing number of U.S. families who are choosing not to have their children immunized. However, unlike McCarthy, they are no longer motivated by the long-discredited theory that vaccines cause autism.
According to more than a dozen area pediatricians and infectious disease specialists that The Hollywood Reporter interviewed, most vaccine-wary parents cite a diffuse constellation of unproven anxieties, from allergies and asthma to eczema and seizures.
"Their position is, 'Hey, why are you so gung ho on tanking your kids with all those vaccines?' " says actress Amanda Peet, who is expecting her third child. "They act almost concerned for me."
Historically, affluent communities have not been breeding grounds for anti-vaxxer sentiment, according to the newspaper:
"A century ago, much of the resistance was coming from the working class, who were most targeted for compulsory vaccination: in steerage compartments on steamships rather than first class, in public schools rather than private schools, in factories rather than offices," says Brandeis professor Michael Willrich, Ph.D, author of Pox: An American History. "But the contours here are anything but. It's the story of the well-educated, upper-middle class or upper class."
Today, on the Westside, those who abstain from vaccinating their kids see refusal through their own socio-anthropological lens. "They're well intended — the people that only want to do the best for their child. They want only natural products, organic foods, attachment parenting, family beds," says Dr. Lisa Stern, a Santa Monica pediatrician. Observes Dr. Neal Baer, a trained pediatrician and veteran TV writer-producer (ER) who wrote an episode of Law & Order: SVU about the public health consequences of vaccine refusal, "It's about not wanting to have anything that isn't 'natural' in your child — this whole notion of the natural and holistic versus the scientific."
What's more, this demographic isn't intimidated by the medical establishment. They've done their own research, read the trendy books and articles, and they feel confident enough of their own knowledge to do what they believe is right for their children, not what they're told is right.
Dr. Nina Shapiro, the director of pediatric otolaryngology at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine and a vocal critic of anti-vaccine sentiment is among the medical practitioners who worries that parents won't change their mind until a tipping point is reached and infant mortality rates go up. "A baby dies of whooping cough in the Palisades?" she says. "Let me tell you, everyone will be immunized. No question."