Laurel Erickson: It's one of the scariest sounds of all childhood diseases — whooping cough!
Young babies are especially vulnerable to whooping cough — also called "pertussis" — that's because immunity against it doesn't kick in until after a series of shots given at regular intervals until about a year-and-a-half.
Dr. Bill Mason: Over the last year, we've had unfortunately two deaths from pertussis.
Erickson: Right here at Children's Hospital?
Dr. Mason: Yes.
Erickson: Dr. Bill Mason is an infectious disease specialist at Children's Hospital L.A. Those infant deaths he saw were two out of 10 in California last year, when there was a surprising outbreak of whooping cough — over 9,000 cases. The last time there were so many was in 1947.
What alarms Dr. Mason most is the growing trend of parents who postpone vaccines. And worse — according to Mason — parents who don't vaccinate their children at all.
Simone Rodman-Wilson is one of the parents Dr. Mason worries about. Her 3-year-old, Moses, has never been vaccinated.
Simone Rodman-Wilson: I feel that there are ingredients in the vaccinations that are pollutants. It's one aspect of the environment that I can control — what goes into his body.
Erickson: Moses goes to a pre-school where seven out of 12 kindergartners last year had what's called a "personal belief exemption" — a waiver California parents file with the school when children don't have all of the standard immunizations.
Personal belief exemptions have quadrupled in California over the past 20 years. The state health department tracks these statistics on a school-by-school basis. How do they do it? They look at the number of kindergartners filing immunization waivers. Those waivers, they found, are usually highest at small private schools, and that has health experts worried about clusters of schools with high rates of unvaccinated kids.
This map of L.A. County tells the story. While personal belief exemptions are 1.9 percent for kindergartners in the South Bay and 1.1 percent in San Gabriel, over on the Westside, where Moses lives, it jumps to 8.5 percent!
Rodman-Wilson: It doesn't concern me. I don't feel concerned that other children are not vaccinated in a large number in the school where he is going, but it is a coincidence.
Jessica Katz: It's just like if I had a sexually active child, I would make them wear condoms because I would want to protect them and I don't see why you wouldn't want to protect them with vaccinations.
Erickson: Jessica Katz is another Westside mom, lives worlds apart from non-vaccinating parents. She believes in giving her two daughters every recommended vaccine.
Katz: I understand as a parent you're responsible for your child and you make the choices for your child, but they don't make choices for my child and they're putting my child at risk.
Erickson: What did you think the first time you heard someone say "I don't want to vaccinate my child?"
Dr. Mason: I was really surprised, and I didn't really understand it and I really was kind of angry.
Erickson: Angry because he's convinced that more unvaccinated children will inevitably lead to more outbreaks of preventable illness.
Dr. Mason: Parents who don't vaccinate their children are depending on at least 90 percent of other parents to vaccinate so their children will be protected.
Erickson: That's what's called "herd immunity." Dr. Mason says there are different percentages for different illnesses. But generally 80 to 90 percent of the population — that's the "herd" — has to be immunized for diseases to be contained.
Erickson: Lucinda has been immunized against just one thing — whooping cough.
Julie Jacobs [Parent]: I guess to maintain the herd immunity, people have to vaccinate, so I guess I'm thankful to the people who vaccinate. For me reading what I read, I just sort of came to the conclusion that there was no hurry.
Erickson: Dr. Jay Gordon, in Santa Monica, admits that he's an establishment outsider when it comes to vaccines.
Dr. Gordon: I'd say about 50 percent of the families in my practice either have no vaccines or almost no vaccines and none of the families in my practice are vaccinated on the usual schedule, because I don't think the schedule we have now is the safest way to give kids shots.
Erickson: That schedule is put out by The Centers for Disease Control. It's the vaccine bible for most doctors. But Gordon disagrees with the schedule, especially the recommended number of infant vaccines — six shots by six weeks of age.
Dr. Gordon: It's done for the doctor's convenience. It's done for economic reasons. It's done because of the insurance company's pressure to have the children have one visit instead of two or three or four or five or six, but I think most pediatricians don't vaccinate their children that way.
Dr. Mason: Their children are exposed to hundreds, maybe thousands, of bacterial and viral agents every day in their lives and they do very well with that — four or five or six vaccines at one time. That's nothing for them.
Jacobs: She didn't go to daycare. You know, she was home. She didn't start school until she was 3 years old and by that point, I kind of thought if she gets the measles, is it really the end of the world? I don't think so.
Dr. Mason: There is no treatment for measles. Measles is just as bad a disease today as it was 40, 50, 60 years ago. One in a thousand children die. One in a thousand get encephalitis.
Dr. Gordon: There are 300 million Americans and there were 132 cases of measles a couple of years ago and it made the front page of The New York Times every three or four days.
Erickson: Then there's chicken pox which can also lead to encephalitis — acute brain inflammation. And the most common risk factor — flesh-eating bacteria.
But unlike measles, the 64-year high of whooping cough cases was alarming enough to spur the state legislature into action. Starting this school year, vaccines were mandated for what might seem like a surprising population. Teens and pre-teens are considered whooping cough "reservoirs."
When teenagers get whooping cough, their symptoms can seem like just a bad cold or bronchitis, but they can easily pass the disease on to younger kids.
The new law affects about a million California students in grades 7 through 12. Here at Santa Monica High School, the shots were given for free by the nearby Venice Family Clinic, except...
Nora McElvain [School Nurse]: We have about a hundred personal belief waivers — some of them from kindergarten and a number of them recently signed. I believe a lot of it has to do with the publicity on the different effects of vaccines and I also think some of it is convenience for the parents...so they waive out to meet the requirement.
Dr. Gordon: It's fear-based medicine. We're trying to scare people into believing that the only way to protect little babies is to vaccinate every teenager. It's not true. It's just not true.
Dr. Mason: All of the parents now have never seen a case of measles, have never seen a case of polio, have never seen a case of bad chicken pox. They have no point of reference. I think it's selfish. Yeah. I think it's selfish.