A new round of stories have recently been written about unvaccinated kids on Vashon Island, a place of educated, affluent and mostly white parents where the split over vaccination is deep.
Every few years, stories appear about Vashon Island and its high percentage of unvaccinated kids.
It happened again a few weeks ago in the wake of reports of measles outbreaks nationwide. Vashon and its 20 percent vaccination-exempt rate made it everywhere from The New York Times to the UK’s Daily Mail.
Then the temporary publicity fades and this island of 11,000 goes back to the same old, same old.
Which is: a deep divide between the pro and con camps that in most other ways are so much alike. Except that this time it got pretty vitriolic.
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The island is more educated, wealthier and whiter than the rest of the state.
Parents here shop at the same Thriftway; their kids go to same public school and play in the same park leagues; they tend to have the same look.
“I was even nervous about talking to you today,” says Heidi HansPetersen, 41, who’s in the pro-vaccine camp. “I felt like I was going to stir the pot.”
HansPetersen is mom to Svea, a 4-year-old girl, and Ueli, a baby of 6 months. Her husband is Jeff HansPetersen, a doctor at a clinic on the island.
The mom explains that because of Svea, she’s particularly concerned about vaccinations.
Svea was born prematurely at just over 1 pound. The little girl spent 4½ months in the hospital before coming home.
Doctors told the parents that even though Svea had been vaccinated, they should be careful about being in public places where she could get infected.
Her mother always carried hand cleaner with her when Svea was younger. She would wipe down a table where Svea sat, wipe down the seat in an airplane. In public places, she kept the little girl in a carrying pack so Svea faced her mom. If anybody held the girl’s hand, it would get immediately wiped.
These days, Svea is a bouncy, active little girl, attending preschool, although she still has a feeding tube.
But recalling those early days, says HansPetersen, “It was frustrating and frightening to have her well-being be threatened by vaccine-preventable illnesses.”
“There is so much misinformation available on the Internet,” she says. “I encourage people to talk to their doctors rather than look to these pseudoscientific websites. They’re full of things that have dubious credibility.”
She says she stopped reading a Facebook page called VashonALL, which has nearly 2,700 members, because it elicited such nasty discussion about the vaccine issue.
This is an island that prides itself on its community spirit, where on sunny weekends at the main intersection, there always seem to be kids waving signs for a fundraising carwash.
But on that Facebook page, the civility at one point descended into a reference to Nazi Germany.
An anti-vaccine woman posted, “Did you want us to put yellow felt stars on our coats so you can avoid us? Or just ship us off to camps somewhere so we don’t infect you?”
A pro-vaccine woman told off an anti-vaccine woman, “You’ve got to be one of the stupidest people I have ever seen on this site.”
The anti-vaccine parents now have their own active, “secret” Facebook page.
Sarah Day, nurse for the Vashon School District, says tempers are cooling. “I have parents now forming a little coalition to promote a respectful conversation.”
Still, she remembers when she was portrayed last year as part of the pro-vaccine school district’s “bully culture.” That was in an opinion piece in The Vashon Loop, a local publication.
The column said that a poster put up at the elementary school “implied that breast milk is more harmful than vaccines.”
Not so, says Day.
Day says all she did was put up a poster using information from vaccinews.net, whose board includes a number of epidemiologists.
The poster asked, “Concerned about aluminum in vaccines?”
It answered that aluminum enhanced a person’s response to a vaccine and had been used safely for decades.
And it pointed out that at 6 months, a baby feeding on breast milk had been exposed to about twice as much aluminum as a baby following a standard immunization schedule.
The co-author of the Loop opinion piece is March Twisdale, who also partners in a blog called Vaccines and Beyond.
She is 42, mother to two boys, Jordi and Roman, 13 and 16. Her husband, Jose Marquez, works in telecommunications.
They have done some vaccinations, and not others.
For chickenpox they took their boys to a “Chickenpox party,” and Twisdale says they “developed naturally acquired immunity.”
They waited until the boys were 9 and 12 to give them a measles vaccine as part of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shots. Normally, it’s recommended the first MMR be given at about 1 to 1½ years.
Why wait so long?
“The children were young and going through early brain development in those years. We did not want to expose their bodies to vaccines,” she says.
And being among the unvaccinated in a herd of kids?
Her boys were home-schooled, says Twisdale, with the older one now attending the local high school.
“We were not in an environment with a lot of people around. We did not travel internationally and did not have family members who travel internationally,” she says. “We don’t hang out with people who are sick.”
The boys finally got the MMR vaccine when “we were considering taking advantage of the public school system, and considering traveling,” she says. “We did not want to bring it home to the community.”
Day, the school-district nurse, says she won’t learn until next fall, when kindergartners are enrolled, about what’s happened to the vaccine opt-out rate.
She is making contingency plans in case there is a measles outbreak, such as how to handle the exclusion from school of exposed kids.
Day says she knows, “Without a doubt, we’re a high risk for a measles outbreak.”
On this particular afternoon, a friend of Heidi HansPetersen’s, Ginger Hamilton, 41, is visiting with her baby daughter, Brinley, and son, Grayson.
Hamilton’s husband, Rob, is an airline pilot, and grew up on Vashon. “It’s a perfect place to raise kids,” she says.
But, parents not vaccinating? “I don’t think they’re out to hurt their kids, or hurt my baby,” says Hamilton. “But they are putting my child at risk.”
She then adds, “We live in a close community. I’m going to be friends with these people for many years.”
She says she hopes her words came out right.
But the divide isn’t going away anytime soon.