Unedited Letter to the Editor: New Paltz, NY Measles Case

Some of you may have heard of a recent case of measles being reported at a Mountain Laurel Waldorf School in New Paltz, NY.

It’s been in the news (WSJ, Poughkeepsie Journal, The Daily Freeman– three cheers for The Daily Freeman for linking to the CDC site to give readers more info about measles, and The Times-Herald Record).

I heard about it several days before it was reported in the news because it hit frighteningly close to home.  My mother is a school nurse in New York state.  She was amongst the first wave of health professionals warned by the Health Department that this was going on in a school only an hour from her school.  She called me right away.  Why?  Because kids we love attend that school.

I’m sure many read stories out outbreaks of whooping cough (aka pertussis) or measles and think, “Oh, that’s far away.  It will never happen to me/my town/my family.”

Well, it can, and if vaccination rates continue to drop, it’s all the more likely, it will.

So how close to home is it for me?  I have family members who are students at that school.  Children who hold, hug, and kiss my unvaccinated infant (because he’s too young).  Kids who play with my daughter, who has yet to get her second MMR vaccination (because she’s too young).  Kids who have a baby brother at home who may not have been vaccinated yet, since he just turned 1.*  Students who have now been exposed to the measles are kids that I love and care about- kids who have routine contact with an unvaccinated sibling and unvaccinated or under-vaccinated cousins.

This is why vaccination is so important!  I pray that these kids are not among the small percentage of vaccinated kids who do not mount a sufficient immune response.  I pray that they didn’t bring this home to their mom and dad and baby brother.  I pray that at pick-up/drop-off their baby brother wasn’t inadvertently exposed.  I am relieved that we haven’t seen them since school started and I can be sure they didn’t exposed my kids to measles.

Their school, the Mountain Laurel Waldorf School, per Health Department protocol, had to tell more than half (!!) of the students not to come to school because they were not sufficiently vaccinated against measles.  That low rate of vaccination is staggering.  It gives me a pit in my stomach.  The CDC is aiming for more than 95% of kids to be vaccinated to prevent an outbreak of measles (source).  A 95% vaccination rate to protect our children and this school has less than 50%?!!?  Why?  Why take this risk?  This school was/is courting an outbreak of vaccine-preventable illness.

The public was notified about this case of measles last Friday, the 21st.  The Dutchess County Health Department “advises residents who have visited the school since Sept. 10 or has had contact with anyone from the school they should make sure they are up to date on their vaccinations.” (source) The incubation period (before which an infected individual will not show symptoms of infection) is up to 18 days (source).  Whether this is an isolated case (which I certainly hope it is) or whether this will be a measles outbreak remains to be seen.

The local Times-Herald Record reported on the measles case earlier this week.  Much to my disgust, it contained a significant factual error, and missed a great opportunity to educate its readership on the importance of vaccines and the risk of declining vaccination rates.  Not to mention, pointing out the lies and shortcuts parents use to get out of vaccinating their children, thereby putting all of us at risk.

What did J Horrigan of the Time-Herald Record get wrong?  Or was it Dr. Carol Smith the Commission of the Ulster Country Health Department who was wrong?  I don’t know, but it prompted me to write a letter to the editor.

The letters to the editor of the Times-Herald Record can only be 200 words long, and I had much more to say.  So, I whittled the essence down to 200 words and sent it off.  The unedited letter to the editor, I publish here.

Letter to the Editor of the Times-Herald Record:

I am writing to bring your attention to an error that appeared in the article published on Tuesday, 9/25/12 entitled “Officials monitor New Paltz school for measles.

In the article, reporter J. Horrigan wrote, “According to [the Ulster County Health Commissioner Carol Smith], children who are vaccinated against measles cannot be infected by the disease.”

Either Dr. Smith was misquoted or she is completely misinformed.

No vaccine is 100% effective.  The measles vaccine has an efficacy rate of approximately 95% according to the CDC (source).

This less than 100% efficacy rate is why it is so crucial for everyone to be vaccinated- it protects those for whom the vaccine did not produce sufficient immunity, those who are too young to be vaccinated, and those who, for legitimate health reasons, cannot be vaccinated.  This phenomenon is called “herd immunity.”  For more detail on “herd immunity” and the consequences of vaccine efficacy, see the CDC website.

It is frightening that over 50% of the students at the Mountain Laurel Waldorf School attended by the infected child are not current on their vaccinations.  There is a clear lack of understanding of the need for vaccination in this community.  It is disturbing that when faced with keeping their children out of school for 21 days, the parents of 27 children chose to vaccinate them.

Clearly most, if not all, of these children were attending school under the religious exemption allowed by New York State law.  Presumably it was not the medical exemption available to children for whom vaccination is medically contraindicated, for that would not have changed so rapidly for 27 students.  Thus, it must have been under the religious exemption which is allowable when “parent, parents or guardian objects to their child’s immunization due to sincere and genuine religious beliefs which prohibit the immunization of their child.”(source).

How sincere and genuine were these beliefs that they would be tossed aside so parents would not have to arrange child care for 21 days?  Was there a mass religious conversion amongst the Mountain Laurel PTA or were these parents lying when they submitted a signed statement indicating that vaccination was a violation of their religious beliefs?

As a parent and as a scientist, I think it is crucial for correct information to be disseminated when it comes to such crucial public health threats as measles and vaccination.  Given the dangerously low vaccination rates at the Mountain Laurel Waldorf School, there is a clear need in your community for accurate information on life-saving vaccines.  This is not the time to spread misinformation due to a lack of diligence on the part of the reporters.  A simple search of the Centers for Disease Control website (or Google for that matter) would have turned up this accurate information.

I ask that you contact Dr. Smith to clarify her statements on this, and that you print a correction.  It would also be beneficial for your readership if you provided some legitimate and reliable information sources- such as the CDCWHO, etc.


Momma, PhD.**

So, there you have it.  My unedited letter to the editor.
For more info, see the Ulster County Health Department’s Measles Outbreak Fact Sheet

*For info on the CDC recommended dosing schedule for the MMR vaccine, see here.

**I used my real name in the correspondence, but am using my Momma, PhD here on the blog.


Filed under #scimom, Mother, Scientist

8 responses to “Unedited Letter to the Editor: New Paltz, NY Measles Case

  1. Jenny F. Scientist, PhD

    My main objection to Waldorf schools in general is the extremely low vaccination rate. Things like this fill me with incoherent rage (well, actually, more like lengthy and fact-filled rage).

    I also love the part where they suddenly all decided to vaccinate their children. WTF, people?

    • Seriously. My relative whose children attend there has a big bday party for her kids and invites lots of kids and parents from the school. I don’t go. I don’t want to expose my kids to a population of children I know are not properly vaccinated. I’m not going to take that chance. I haven’t explicitly said that, but I think my relative knows.

      As for the sudden change of heart- I know! You must be very devote if the prospect of keeping your kid out of school for 3 weeks causes you to abandon the tenets of your faith!

      And, quite frankly, a faculty member of the school was at the party one year (when I was pregnant with Mabel) and flat out admitted to my mother (a school nurse who deals with this stuff daily) that the parents just lie about the religious objection to get out of vaccinating kids. Look where it’s gotten them.

  2. k

    This year there have been several whooping cough cases in Northern California and so far well over half of the cases have been in children aged 8-11 who are current on all vaccinations. A Dr. at Kaiser in Marin County has published an article strongly suggesting that changes to the vaccine formulation in the 1990s is the cause of vaccinated kids continuing to get sick and continue to spread it around.

    • K- I think I read the same thing here:

      Seems the new vaccine doesn’t last as long as the older one. I hope the CDC steps up quickly and changes it’s recommendation on boosters. If the immunity wanes when kids are only 8 to 11 years old, they might still have infants and very young siblings they could expose.

      Also, parents may want to get a booster in that timeframe as well.

      Whooping cough is scary. My extended family all got the DTaP when my eldest was born to be safe. Mac and I got it as well.

      • Jenny F. Scientist, PhD

        This (result of stupidity) and also this (bad luck and changing vaccine formulation and a generation that got not-vaccinated in between endemic disease and universal immunization.

  3. Daisy

    Great post! I feel very strongly about herd immunity as well. There are many people who are immunocompromised and lose the benefit of vaccines they received previously. When one of my children was 6 months old my pediatrician generously delayed a vaccine until the following Monday because we were planning to visit my sister over the weekend and she was getting chemo for breast cancer at the time. It was a vaccine which can be shed in fecal matter (can’t remember which one).

    More people should read or re-read the poignant essay by Benjamin Franklin about the sorrow he felt upon the death of a son who he did not vaccinate.

    I just don’t understand how someone can take a purposefully unimmunized child on an international trip.

  4. Worried Mama

    This is scary, I avoid going certain places in New Paltz where I know there are unvaccinated children because even though mine is I don’t want to risk the exposure. I looked at MLS in New Paltz but this is why my child won’t go there. With all the international travel these days and all the foreigners coming and going in the port of NY why would you not vaccinate? The statistics are clear, your chances of getting the disease are higher than your chances of Ill effect from the vaccines. Community vaccination makes us all safer.

  5. Pingback: Another unremarkable reaction to vaccinations | mommacommaphd

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