Gary Monahan remembers his son’s temperature spiking to 102 degrees when he was vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella. The child then landed in the hospital with what appeared to be whooping cough after his next round of vaccinations.
By the time the child was 3 1/2 , he was diagnosed with autism, Monahan said.
The experience reshaped Monahan’s approach to raising his children. Now, the Costa Mesa city councilman, who is the father of six, has skipped vaccinations for his last four children.
Even the specter of the current measles outbreak, which spread rapidly from Disneyland after an exposure during the holidays, has not given Monahan pause.
“How do I say this without sounding crazy?” he said. “I don’t want anyone to get measles … but you have to make it easier for the parents through the health system to do it the right way. Pounding three live viruses into somebody at 1 year old is devastating.”
Measles can be especially severe in babies, toddlers and pregnant women, as well as other adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Especially vulnerable are infants younger than 12 months, before they get their first dose of the vaccine known as MMR — for measles, mumps and rubella.
But a growing anti-vaccination movement in the United States has been fueled by parents’ fears that vaccines are not safe for every child. Like Monahan, some worry that the measles vaccine causes autism — a theory that has been thoroughly discredited by numerous scientific studies.
In the face of the state’s worst measles outbreak in 15 years, many of those aligned with the anti-vaccine movement remain unbowed.
“What if they experience it,” said Dee Klocke of the prospects of either of her two children contracting measles. “So what?”
Klocke, whose children attend Waldorf School of Orange County where 41% of the kindergartners were unvaccinated when they entered kindergarten this year, said she and her husband, a chiropractor, aren’t worried about their children getting sick.
“Maybe I’m saying that just because it hasn’t happened yet,” she said.
Statewide, the number of parents who refuse to vaccinate their kindergarten-age children has declined for the first time in a dozen years, according to a Times data analysis. But pockets of resistance remain.
In coastal Orange County — wealthy and well-educated — some parents have opted out of having their children vaccinated at a rate far above the state average. In the Capistrano Unified School District in suburban south Orange County, for instance, the vaccine exemption rate is 8.6% — more than three times the state average.
Dr. Bob Sears, a pediatrician in Dana Point who has been embraced by so-called anti-vaxers and preaches a slowed-down approach to those who choose to vaccinate their children, said he doubted the outbreak would cause parents to suddenly change their point of view.
“Residents should be appropriately concerned, but there’s no reason to panic,” Sears wrote in an email.
Sears said that although measles can cause complications and spread easily, most cases pass without harm. In a Facebook post last year, Sears blamed media for causing people to panic.
Some parents who refuse to vaccinate their children said they know they’ve been branded as “wackos” but said they have thoughtfully considered and researched their choices.
“It’s such an unpopular thing to not vaccinate,” said Nicole, a mother of two from Mission Viejo who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family’s privacy. “I don’t want to be paraded through the mud for my choice.”
Since the measles outbreak, she said she’s remained focused on ensuring her children have an optimal nutrition level, including a vitamin-rich diet. Any sniffle, any cough, any spike in temperature is cause for concern. She looks for spots inside her children’s mouths to detect measles, and said she is prepared to isolate them if they get sick or are quarantined by their school.
She said at least two doctors have now refused to keep her children in their practice.
“You have to be informed, you have to be an expert on your own child’s health,” she said. “Once you vaccinate your child, you can never un-vaccinate.”
Dotty Hagmier, a former nurse and founder of a group called Moms in Charge, which aims to help mothers make informed choices, said she once saw those who didn’t vaccinate as “very irresponsible and putting others at risk.” But when doctors accidentally gave her child an extra dose of the vaccine for Hepatitis B, she realized she didn’t like being at the mercy of whatever she was told.
FOR THE RECORD
Jan. 26, 12:09 p.m.: An earlier version of this article quoted Dotty Hagmier as saying that her child received an extra dose of the Hepatitis C vaccine. After publication, Hagmier clarified that it was the Hepatitis B vaccine. A vaccine for Hepatits C is not currently available.
“I needed to expand my mind and get my head out of the sand,” she said. “It kind of rocked my world for a little while.”
Hagmier decided not to give her kids any more booster shots. As the current outbreak continues to swell, she hopes others will think “critically, without so much blame” of those who have made decisions like hers.
People are quick to deny claims of vaccination injury, she said, but “if it happened to your kid, it would be true.”
The disease itself is unpleasant, beginning with high fever, cough, runny nose and watery eyes. It can also bring more serious complications, like pneumonia or swelling of the brain, said Matt Zahn, director of epidemiology for the Orange County Health Department.
Parents today may see only the pain of a shot, but Dr. Jasjit Singh said she’s seen far worse: children dying of vaccine-preventable illnesses.
“There is nothing more heartbreaking,” said Singh, associate director of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Orange County.
Singh said parents who choose not to vaccinate often have their childrens’ best interest in mind, but mainstream science does not support their fears.
The success of vaccines seems to have given people cause for not vaccinating as much as they once did, said Los Angeles resident Derek Bartholomaus, who runs a website called “the anti-vaccine body count.”
The site keeps a ticker of preventable illnesses (144,886), preventable deaths (6,312), and number of autism diagnoses scientifically linked to vaccinations (0) since June 3, 2007.
Still, Bartholomaus is not sure how many minds he’s changing.
“It’s really hard because it gets into the conspiracy theorist mentality,” he said. “If it were just a rational and logical discussion, there’s no debate. Vaccines are safe and effective.”
Tisha Banker and her husband, parents of two children nearing kindergarten age, were unsure about vaccines when she was pregnant. But they became firmly pro-vaccine when all of the eight pediatricians they met with spoke of the importance of preventing illness and the safety of the injections, she said.
“I understand the fears, because we all as parents have them,” she said. “But at the end of the day, would you really want to look at yourself in the mirror because you caused your child to have a life-threatening illness? Because you were too hardheaded?”