ORANGE COUNTY, California — Dr. Bob Sears’ office in Capistrano Beach is known as a judgment-free zone for parents who are considering not vaccinating their children.
But after the measles outbreak that started at Disney Resort, infecting 12 Orange County residents and more than 60 people in seven states, the alternative-medicine pediatrician said he is getting at least a dozen calls daily — including some from parents who are changing their minds about not immunizing their kids.
Measles was once so rare that parents had the luxury of skipping the vaccine without risking disease, Sears said.
“When an outbreak occurs, that sense of security goes away, and I think that some of these parents will naturally take this opportunity to get their child vaccinated,” he said.
Since the disease hit the Anaheim theme park over the winter holiday, other local doctors said they have fielded more calls and concerns about measles and vaccines — and they’re noticing a shift.
Parents are growing frustrated by “anti-vaxxers” and they’re more vocal about it, said Dr. Katherine Roberts of Southern Orange County Pediatric Associates in Ladera Ranch, California.
The highly contagious virus — which once infected as many as 4 million people and killed up to 500 each year in the United States — became less common after the introduction of a vaccine in 1963. There were still some big outbreaks, largely fueled by high numbers of unimmunized people, but the disease was eventually eliminated in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Then, last year, travelers visiting the Philippines carried the disease back to the United States, sparking the biggest outbreak since 2000. Nationwide, there were 644 cases, including 22 in Orange County.
As with past outbreaks, most of those stricken were not vaccinated, according to the CDC.
“Part of the problem with very serious diseases is they get eradicated and people cannot see them and they don’t realize the severity,” said Dr. Ali Ghobadi, assistant chief of medicine at Kaiser Permanente Orange County.
In California, along with four other vaccines, children ages 4 to 6 are required to get two doses of the MMR vaccine, the shot that protects against measles, mumps and rubella. Parents can opt out if they sign a personal belief waiver or obtain a medical exemption from a doctor.
The state tightened the personal belief exemption in January 2014, requiring parents to consult a health care provider before opting out. There is, however, an exception for families whose religion prohibits them from seeking medical advice or treatment.
In Orange County, the highest rates of unvaccinated schoolchildren are in affluent and mostly white communities, especially in coastal South County.
For the first time since 2007, the number of Orange County kindergartners up to date on their vaccines did not fall this school year — instead, it rose almost 2 percentage points to 90.4 percent.
Still, that figure is below the 95 percent level of immunization coverage that health officials say is needed to prevent a widespread outbreak.
The data aren’t clear on how outbreaks have influenced parents’ decisions to vaccinate their children, Dr. David Nunez, the Orange County Health Care Agency’s family health medical director said.
But Roberts said amid last year’s outbreak, a couple of families in her practice who had held off vaccinating their children decided to get the shots.
Parents who skip vaccines want the personal choice to do so, Nunez said. They also cite the vaccine’s purported link to autism and concerns about their children’s immune systems not being able to handle such heavy vaccine schedules, she said. Scientific studies have debunked the latter two concerns.
“The whole idea of quote-unquote too many vaccines is probably the most common one I get, because we have more vaccines than parents had when they were kids,” Roberts said. “I’ve heard so much misinformation, it’s tough to get through that. Sometimes it takes a few sessions.”
In the past two years, she said, she’s also had more conversations with parents frustrated by those who opt out of vaccines. “They see it as putting their kids in jeopardy,” she said.
“Not immunizing affects everyone around you,” San Juan Capistrano mother Emily Burke, 50, said. “People spent centuries trying to fix this.”
Burke’s child attends Ambuehl Elementary School in San Juan Capistrano where 37 percent of students are not up to date on their vaccinations. Among Orange County public schools, Ambuehl ranks among the top 10 for percentage of unvaccinated kindergarteners.
At Journey School in Aliso Viejo on a recent Monday, Cynthia Ramirez, a mother of two students, said her children have all their required vaccines. But she said she understands parents who have different beliefs. At Journey, 62 percent of kindergarteners are not up to date with their vaccinations, the highest percentage among public schools in the county.
“It’s a complicated issue for many families. I don’t think anyone here is making any decisions to intentionally harm their children or other children around them,” she said. “My husband and I struggled with the vaccination decision ourselves.”
Ramirez said Journey staff members have never advocated against vaccines and have always been proactive in sending sick children home.
Sears said he advises his patients to weigh the complications of vaccines, but ultimately leaves the choice to them.
Five percent to 10 percent of those who get the vaccine develop a low fever and a mild rash, according to the CDC. Severe side effects are so rare that public health officials say it’s difficult to tell whether they were caused by the vaccine. They include deafness, permanent brain damage and serious allergic reaction.
On his Facebook page, Sears posted recently that more pediatricians in his area have begun discriminating against parents who don’t vaccinate.
“The answer won’t be to make everyone vaccinate; neither should the answer be to allow diseases to run rampant and kill people left and right,” he posted. “The answer needs to be somewhere in the middle, and it needs to include love, understanding, and calm-headed people who will actually stop and listen to each other.”
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