Why Waldorf? No vaccines lets measles hit hard
Did they fear an autism link or were they adhering to the Waldorf school founder's opposition to vaccines? Whatever their reason, the parents of the measles-infected Charlottesville Waldorf School student chose not to vaccinate, and they've now experienced the repercussion of leaving their child susceptible to an illness that was virtually erased 40 years ago. It's been gone from this country so long, says one health official, that many people don't remember measles as a potentially fatal illness.
"It's not in their mind anymore, so they're more afraid of the vaccine than the diseases," says Dr. Lillian Peake, head of the Thomas Jefferson Health District, who confirms that three of the four local people who contracted measles last month– including two children– hadn't been vaccinated. (The vaccination history of the fourth, says Peake, is unknown.)
Measles arrived in Charlottesville in May via an adult female who contracted the illness on a trip to India, says Peake. It wasn't long before that woman– who was hospitalized with complications from the respiratory virus famous for its signature rash– had spread the disease to a group that may be more vulnerable to such preventable disease: students at the Waldorf School.
Founded in the early 20th century by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, the Waldorf educational method is often praised for inspiring creativity and morality in its students and has even been adopted by charter public schools across the country. Critics, however, say the education– which is based on the Steiner-invented philosophy Anthroposophy– hides a cultish inclination that includes a belief in fairies and gnomes and the use of color to allow children to see through to a spiritual realm. Steiner also developed Anthrosopophical medicine, in which adherents are encouraged to abstain from many medications including vaccines.
That may be why Waldorf communities seem particularly vulnerable to preventable disease outbreaks, as occurred when a measles outbreak at a German Waldorf school sickened 71.
Steiner's anti-vaccine philosophy, however, does not drive the Charlottesville Waldorf School's health care policies, says school coordinator Amanda Tipton, who insists the school is no different than a public school in that regard, and simply follows state guidelines that require parents to submit vaccine verification for their child or to provide a signed waiver citing religious exemption.
"We do support informed decisions as long as they can provide proper documentation," Tipton notes, adding that those who sign the vaccine waivers also agree in writing that their children will be kept out of school in the event of an outbreak until the danger has passed. In this case, according to Peake, that's June 10: Waldorf's last day of school.
Peake says in the case of the Waldorf student, more than 220 people were exposed, and of those, 40 were considered susceptible either because they were unvaccinated or they had only received one dose of the vaccine. (The first dose will protect 95 percent of people for life, says Peake. The second dose boosts that protection rate to 99 percent.)
If some Waldorf families forgo vaccinations, they're not the only ones– and Steiner's unorthodox philosophy is not the reason most families give for skipping the shots. In fact, says Peake, the number of unvaccinated children has risen in recent years over fears that they cause autism, a disorder whose symptoms can range from mild social awkwardness to a total inability to speak or relate to others.
The vaccine/autism fears hit a fever pitch in 1998 when the British medical journal The Lancet published a study claiming a link between the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine– widely implemented in the early 1970s– and autism. Although the study was later declared fraudulent and numerous other studies found no correlation, the fears didn't subside. In March 2010, a special federal court, commonly known as "Vaccine Court" and set up in 1986 to address claims of injury by vaccines, ruled there is no conclusive evidence linking vaccines with autism.
Neither the studies nor the ruling, however, have convinced some parents of children with autism that vaccines aren't to blame for their childrens' condition, which currently has a prevalence of 1 in 110, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Anguished parents aren't the only ones making the claim.
"The studies are done by people who have a stake in the outcome," says Dan Olmstead, author of The Age of Autism and editor of the blog by the same name. "That's not evil," he says, "but it is an issue that needs to be recognized."
Olmstead, who believes that vaccines are linked to autism based on anecdotal evidence and his own investigation, says that no one has done the one study he believes could put the issue to rest: a thorough comparison of the rate of autism among vaccinated vs. not vaccinated children.
"The fact that they won't do it, I think, is suspicious," he says, noting that the cost of a widespread study would run into the millions of dollars, making it impossible to conduct for anyone other than the government or a large pharmaceutical company.
As for the dangers of contracting an illness like measles as a result of avoiding vaccines, Olmstead insists it's a good trade off.
"The autism rate is one in 100. That is terrible," he says, claiming a low percentage of complications from measles. "Measles is something kids get and recover from," he says. "Autism is something kids get and mostly don't recover from."
Peake, however, says that six in 100 of those who contract measles will get pneumonia, the most common cause of death from the disease. And she notes that vaccinations protect the entire population and are particularly important given the number of people now living with compromised immune systems, such as those with AIDS or cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. For those patients, Peake says, measles has a 70 percent mortality rate.
"It's a different situation than it was in the 1950s," she says.
Fortunately, says Peake, all four local measles victims are expected to make a full recovery– but for the nearly 50 people who were exposed and considered susceptible to the illness, spending three weeks in quarantine may have already caused some to reconsider their vaccine stance.
On May 27, the Waldorf School closed for the day and offered a vaccine clinic. While several families took advantage, Tipton says the school has no plan to push vaccination.
"It's definitely a family decision," she says.Read more on: Measles