Child vaccines less popular in county than elsewhere
By SHANNA McCORD
Sentinel staff writer
SANTA CRUZ — At age 2, Morgan Sawyer has never had a single shot of medicine.
Before he was born, Morgan’s parents Scott and Debra Sawyer poured through dozens of books and attended conferences that led them to believe injecting their son’s blood with vaccinations posed more risks than benefits and that Morgan would be better off without.
"I can’t believe in my heart that a vaccine is going to make an infant healthier," said Scott Sawyer, a Santa Cruz chiropractor. "I firmly believe that we were all given an opportunity when we were born to start out perfect. With vaccines, they’re saying that we’re not born perfectly."
The Sawyer’s opposition to having their son immunized represents the small but significant portion of the local population that makes Santa Cruz County one of the highest in the state for "personal belief exemptions" from vaccinations.
In 2002, Santa Cruz County had the third highest percentage of exemptions with 5.4 percent of parents opting to withhold vaccinations for their children, according to the county Health Services Agency.
During the past three decades, vaccinations have become the standard and most effective method for eradicating once powerful diseases such as polio, measles, mumps, tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough and rubella. Now there are also vaccinations for Hepatitis B, chicken pox and the flu.
According to government guidelines, Morgan Sawyer and all children up to age 2 should have already received vaccinations for protection against a dozen diseases.
The only counties with higher percentages of exemptions than Santa Cruz in 2002 were rural Nevada and Siskiyou counties.
Last year the Santa Cruz County exemption rate fell to 4.3 percent, with exemptions for 139 out of 2,800 children, said Katie LeBaron, health educator with All Kids By Two Santa Cruz County Immunization Coalition.
Still, the rate is four times higher than the state average of 1 percent, a disconcerting issue for county health officials.
The primary reason parents choose not to immunize, health officials say, is fear.
"They’ve read something that scares them," said M’Liss Keesling, immunization coordinator for the county Health Services Agency. "Some would rather their children have the disease naturally, but chances are they won’t get these diseases as a child but as an adult, which is much worse."
State law requires vaccinations before children can attend day care or school, though parents can opt for a personal belief waiver that allows their child to enter school under the condition that if there’s a disease outbreak, their child will be forced to stay home.
Some private schools won’t accept kids who aren’t vaccinated.
"There are certain diseases that we don’t see anymore, but we still need to immunize because they’re not eradicated worldwide," Keesling said.
A recent example is the UC Santa Cruz student who was diagnosed with the measles in April, when she contracted the disease from a baby in Washington who had come to the United States from China.
Health officials say that families like the Sawyers, by not immunizing their children, are relying on the majority of others to provide immunity against disease — a concept known as "herd immunity."
"The larger the percentage of the population that’s immunized, the less susceptible the host will be in the community," LeBaron said. "With herd immunity, there’s less and less places for the disease to go."
Scott Sawyer disagrees.
He says his findings are based on various books that state most diseases were already waning before vaccinations were developed and there’s no guarantee that vaccinations prevent illness.
Sawyer is also concerned with levels of formaldehyde and a mercury replacement called thimerosal, both used to create vaccines.
"Anything you inject into the blood stream will come in contact with the brain until age 2 when the blood-brain barrier has been developed," Sawyer said. "There’s evidence that chemicals on the brain can lead to autism and sudden infant death syndrome."
Sawyer said he and his wife prefer a healthy lifestyle that includes meticulous attention to diet, exercise and ample rest. Debra, who is pregnant with their second child, will give birth at home with a midwife just as she did with Morgan.
And neither of them take aspirin for common headaches.
"The premise I live my life by is that health is an inside job," Sawyer said. "I think people in Santa Cruz take time to educate themselves."
As for Morgan, besides a bout with jaundice as an infant, he’s done fine without vaccinations, his father said.
"He’s been very healthy, everything’s been great," Sawyer said.
Contact Shanna McCord at firstname.lastname@example.org.