John Leddy was all set to send his 2-year-old daughter Vanessa to the YWCA Family Cooperative Preschool in Santa Monica recently when he and his wife decided at the last minute to ask about its measles vaccination rate.
They went onto the state's website and were alarmed to learn that as of last fall, only 51% of the preschool's children were vaccinated against the measles. The Venice family is now looking for a different day-care center with a higher immunization rate.
"I had to wonder: How many families there who do vaccinate their children were aware of this?" he said.
A Times analysis of preschool immunization showed that private child-care centers like the YWCA in Santa Monica had lower measles vaccination rates than public facilities. Mirroring the situation at kindergartens, the analysis found that preschools in affluent areas like the Westside, southern Orange County and the South Bay tended to have lower vaccination rates.
About 87% of toddlers and preschoolers had all required vaccines in privately run child-care facilities; public centers had a 90% rate. At federally funded Head Start programs, which serve low-income children, the rate was 96%.
The data worried public officials and health experts, who said authorities needed to do more to ensure preschoolers are vaccinated. Experts say a 92% vaccination rate is a minimum to prevent an outbreak like measles from spreading rapidly; greater than 95% is ideal.
Distrust of vaccines is "based on the concept that vaccines are dangerous, or have risk, which is not true," said Dr. James Cherry, a UCLA professor and measles expert. Anti-vaccine concerns have become so loud "that the schools have turned a blind eye."
Statewide, the measles immunization rate is about 96% for those ages 2 through 5 for children in licensed child-care centers.
Yet there are about 1,500 child-care centers in California that have a measles vaccination rate of 92% or less. The vast majority — about 1,100 — are private. More than 500 are in Los Angeles and Orange counties, about 300 are in the San Francisco Bay Area and about 130 are in San Diego County.
In Santa Monica, roughly 30 out of 45 child-care centers had a measles vaccination rate of 92% or lower, according to data filed to the state in the fall. All four child-care centers in Malibu that filed data were below that rate.
Low measles immunization rates were also found in preschools in Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Silver Lake, the western and southern San Fernando Valley, and Pasadena.
The Orange County coast was also a hot spot, such as Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo and San Clemente.
Elsewhere in California, Marin County, Berkeley, the U.S. 101 corridor in Silicon Valley, coastal neighborhoods in San Diego County, the Eureka area and the suburbs northeast of Sacramento had clusters of child-care centers with low measles vaccination rates.
The California Immunization Handbook tells schools and child-care centers that the basic rule is "No shots, no records, no school."
But some preschools, like the YWCA preschool in Santa Monica, say they don't take a position on vaccination.
"The YWCA of USA does not have a position on childhood vaccination. We're aware of this concern, and we're currently working on clarifying our policy on vaccinations," director Nina Moench said in a statement to The Times.
Moench said that although the state's fall data places immunization levels at 51%, more children have since received measles vaccinations and the rate has risen to about 76%.
At Manhattan Beach Nursery School, which describes itself as a "parent participation co-operative preschool," 36% of the children were vaccinated for measles. About three out of four children have a vaccine exemption on file due to a parent's personal beliefs.
"We would not take a stand on encouraging them [to vaccinate]. It's not the school's position to take a stand on encouraging them either way," said Carol Tatsumi, director of the Manhattan Beach Nursery School.
Tatsumi said she had told parents that should an outbreak occur, she would promptly send unvaccinated children home "for their protection."
State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) said the low rates are concerning, and parents should be alerted about immunization rates at the schools their children attend.
"This is about everyone working together to help protect everyone else," he said.
The data, which cover about 9,000 preschools across the state, show that many preschools are in better shape. Some have posted nearly 100% vaccination rates, even in communities with many families skeptical of vaccines.
Bright Horizons at Ocean Park in Santa Monica reported a 98% measles inoculation rate last fall, and the rate as of Tuesday is 99%, spokeswoman Bridget Perry said.
At the KinderCare in Laguna Niguel on Alicia Parkway, the 66% measles immunization rate from the fall went up to 94% as of Tuesday.
"We highly encourage parents to get their children vaccinated, especially with measles being the issue that it is," said KinderCare spokeswoman Colleen Moran.
Leddy, 56, the Venice father, said he had hoped that the YWCA preschool in Santa Monica would have a plan to improve immunization rates. But for all the appeal of the school's progressive ideas, low teacher-to-child ratios and organic snacks, he felt he could not send his daughter there because of its stance on immunization.
"Santa Monica has so many great things going for it, and this is really a black eye for the community," Leddy said. "It has a lot of progressive ideas, most of which I support. But not vaccinating your children is not progressive."
As of Wednesday, a California-centered measles outbreak has spread to at least 119 people in eight U.S. states and Mexico, with 103 of the cases in California. The first cases were tied to workers or visitors at Disneyland in mid-December.
Times staff writers Thomas Suh Lauder and Doug Smith contributed to this report.