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Growing Number of Parents Aren't Vaccinating Their Kids

At least eleven children in San Diego County are infected with measles. The outbreak began last month, when an unvaccinated child returned from a family trip to Switzerland with the disease. Childhood

Growing Number of Parents Aren't Vaccinating Their Kids

(Photo: Sybil Carlson and her sons Quentin (L) and Miles (R). Kenny Goldberg/KPBS)

At least eleven children in San Diego County are infected with measles. The outbreak began last month, when an unvaccinated child returned from a family trip to Switzerland with the disease. Childhood vaccines have been hailed as one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. But a growing number of parents just don’t think they’re safe. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.


Six-and-a-half year old Miles Carlson and his little brother Quinten love to build things.

 Miles: We’re making a castle out of these big Legos. And this is the lookout spot…

The Carlson brothers are different from the vast majority of kids in this country. They’re largely unvaccinated.

Their mom, Sybil, says Miles had all of the standard vaccinations until he was one. But then she started to read things on the Internet about the dangers of vaccines.

Carlson: And I just came to a point where I felt I was more and more afraid. I was actually scared to have him vaccinated. 

After Quinten was born, Carlson and her husband decided to give him one meningitis vaccination, and that was it.

Carlson: And after that I just kept reading and just didn’t feel comfortable. And every time I read new information, it just solidified my belief that I was making the right decision.

So Miles Carlson is only partially protected against diseases like diphtheria, polio, and measles. Quinten has virtually no protection at all.

Sybil Carlson concedes her kids could be at risk. But she says it’s a choice she had to make.

Carlson: And I feel like the chances of them contracting a disease and having a very serious reaction, or dying from it, are less than that happening from giving them all of the vaccines that are now recommended for children.

Dr. Howard Backer: The vaccines are incredibly safe. But nothing is 100 percent safe.

Dr. Howard Backer heads up the immunization branch of the California Department of Public Health. He says some kids have adverse reactions to vaccines. But he says such reactions are infrequent.

Backer: They’re very rare, and it depends on the vaccine. Some vaccines they’re basically vanishingly rare.

Backer says it’s true that the chances of a child getting a disease like the measles or polio are low. He says that’s because most children have received all of their vaccinations. But for unvaccinated kids, potential danger is only a plane ride away.

On January 15th, an unvaccinated seven-year-old flew back to San Diego from Switzerland with the measles. The child infected two siblings, and four classmates at school. Four other kids who went to the same clinic as the sick child also came down with measles. Health officials say thousands more may have been exposed.

Dr. Mark Sawyer is a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases. He says measles is one of the most contagious diseases known to man.

Dr. Mark Sawyer: I like to remind people of the outbreak we had here in San Diego in 1989 and 1990, where we had hundreds of cases, and we had three deaths, from the measles. And these are in healthy children. It isn’t something that is uniquely a problem in children whose immune system is compromised. This affects everybody, and can kill even healthy children.

All of the San Diego kids who are sick with measles were either unvaccinated, or were under the minimum age to get inoculated.

Measles kills about a quarter-of-a-million children worldwide every year. Hepatitis B, another preventable condition, causes chronic liver disease and cancer.

Dr. Backer says parents need to wake up.

Backer: If too many people choose not to be vaccinated, we will start seeing these diseases on a regular basis, and unfortunately, we’ll have to experience the dangerousness and seriousness of these diseases.

Sybil Carlson remains unconvinced. She’s not saying all of the doctors and health officials are wrong, but…

Carlson: Their agenda’s different. Their agenda is for general public health, and I’m not going to sacrifice my children in the interest of general public health.

California law requires all incoming kindergartners to be fully vaccinated against measles, diphtheria, and other diseases. But it allows parents to opt out for religious or personal beliefs.

In San Diego County, more than 1,000 kindergartners are unvaccinated. 

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.