My six-year-old daughter started first grade at the beginning of the month, which means that last week I had the pleasure of leaving the blistering hellscape of Los Angeles and driving down to gorgeous Laguna Beach to attend my very first parent-teacher meet-and-greet. If you've never been to Laguna Beach, it's like the Garden of Eden with a seashore and a dozen sushi restaurants. The place really is everything you imagine when you think of Southern California: it's a pristine little paradise tucked beyond the hills of western Orange County and surrounded on almost all sides by state and city parks -- the kind of place where you can't imagine anything ever going wrong.
Maybe this is why it was so strangely unnerving that before we got to any other topic, the principal who'll be helping to oversee my child's education for the next several years outlined the school's emergency procedures, should they be necessary. The potential for wildfires and earthquakes I expected -- the threat of a lockdown was one of those things I'd tried to push out of my mind.
You don't like to consider the possibility that some misguided lunatic might do harm to what you love most in the world -- your child -- and indeed the chances of that are infinitesimal. But what about a whole bunch of misguided lunatics potentially doing harm to your child? That's more likely. And as it turns out, it's much more likely here in Southern California.
The Hollywood Reporter recently published an excellent and entirely disturbing investigation into vaccination rates in Los Angeles, particularly in some of its toniest areas -- places like Beverly Hills, Malibu and Santa Monica. What the author of the piece found is that wealthy, educated people are choosing to opt out of vaccinating their children in numbers that are staggering. THR acquired records for elementary schools all across Los Angeles County and learned that where vaccination rates are down -- largely in these privileged city-states -- cases of whooping cough have gone through the roof. What many are doing is filing "personal belief exemptions," a term that's admittedly catchier than "shitty parent exemptions" but which describes pretty much the same thing: they're forms that override vaccination guidelines so that a whole lot of precious little snowflakes can still go to school despite potentially being walking Petri dishes, all because mom's "instinct" tells her vaccinations are bad.
The article spells it out:
The number of PBEs being filed is scary. The region stretching from Malibu south to Marina del Rey and inland as far as La Cienega Boulevard (and including Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills) averaged a 9.1 percent PBE level among preschoolers for the 2013-14 school year — a 26 percent jump from two years earlier. By comparison, L.A. County at large measured 2.2 percent in that period. Many preschools in this area spiked far higher, including Kabbalah Children’s Academy in Beverly Hills (57 percent) and the Waldorf Early Childhood Center in Santa Monica (68 percent). According to World Health Organization data, such numbers are in line with immunization rates in developing countries like Chad and South Sudan.
The irony would be delicious if it weren't so infuriating. The immunization rates in Chad and Sudan are low because the people there are poor and have difficulty getting access to proper health care; the people in Beverly Hills are rich and have access to the best health care in the world and yet the immunization rates there are low because they're fucking idiots who are simply choosing to opt out based on paranoia and superstition even the underdeveloped would would balk at. In fact, it can be argued that it's precisely their privilege that's leading them down this dangerous path, with concierge doctors rubber-stamping every little whim or irrational night terror they experience after reading something Jenny McCarthy wrote or talking to their yogi over kombuchas at Greenleaf.
That's always been the thing about Los Angeles and Southern California in general: the people here are such a lethal combination of trend savvy and fitness conscious that they latch onto any First World health fad or new bit of celebrity pseudoscience and become insufferable and even dangerous prophets for it. The privileged in the areas listed in the THR piece will feed their children only vegan meals because it'll supposedly keep them healthy but they'll refuse to do the one thing that will absolutely keep them healthy. The one thing that's proven to.
And by behaving this way, they're bringing immunization rates down, compromising herd protection, and laying the groundwork for an epidemic of diseases long-thought eradicated. It's as if modern medicine could overcome everything except the most dangerous threat of all: ignorance.
I'm lucky. My child goes to a public school which requires a full regimen of vaccines for all students and which isn't inclined to bend the rules just because a parent happens to be somebody used to getting what he or she wants. (And her mother has always been vigilant about sticking to the CDC's recommended vaccination schedule.) My child is, hopefully, safe -- at least at school. But she still lives in a somewhat isolated enclave of affluent families in Southern California and so it's tough not to wonder what all those other parents are thinking and doing.
So I'll say it again: vaccinate your damn kids, if not for your own child then for mine and a lot of other parents' -- because it's their lives you're playing roulette with too. Wildfires and earthquakes I can deal with. Human stupidity, that's a different story.