Editor’s Note: This is an opinion column written by Casey Breznick, editor-in-chief of the Cornell student publication “The Cornell Review” and an author for Legal Insurrection.
It follows an Ithaca Voice story, “Despite push, efforts, some Ithaca schools have dangeorusly low vaccination rates.”
As always, we welcome alternative or dissenting viewpoints. To have a column printed, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Written by Casey Breznick:
Due to the alarming outbreak of measles across the country, so-called “anti-vaxxers” are coming under extreme criticism. As well they should be.
I won’t delve into the particulars of the measles outbreak–Legal Insurrection’s Leslie Eastman offers more analysis and some solutions. I’m more interested in the narrative surrounding “VaccineGate.”
Of course, the mainstream media has been fervently trying to frame the anti-vaccination crowd as a collection of screw-balled libertarian Tea Partiers. It’s a slam-dunk narrative, so they think, because conservatives and libertarians are naturally opposed to big government and, for the most part, are skeptical of government actions, programs, and mandates in general.
As the mainstream media tries to make out anti-vaxxers as Ted Kaczynski disciples who so-happen to vote Republican, it is gradually coming to light that the anti-vaccination crowd is actually quite bipartisan, and that the whole movement was started by liberal-progressives in southern California. Comedian, actress, and Playboy model Jenny McCarthy is perhaps the most notable anti-vaxxer.
In Ithaca, New York, a bastion of liberalism which some call “ten square miles surrounded by reality,” vaccination rates at elementary schools are well below state averages. Some local schools, both public and private, have measles vaccination rates below 90%, whereas the state average is 95%.
This is rather disturbing, since the 95% level is what is considered necessary to establish “herd immunity.” Yet, what is most interesting here is that of the seven schools in the Ithaca area with vaccination rates below 95%, as originally reported by The Ithaca Voice, only two are traditional public schools.
The rest consist of private schools, a charter school, and a public “alternative school.” The schools with the lowest vaccination rates are the Ithaca Waldorf School, a private school, and the Lehman Alternative Community School.
Why is it noteworthy that the Ithaca Waldorf School, an alternative private school that eschews normal pedagogical methods, reports only 72% of students are vaccinated against measles, and that Lehman, in downtown Ithaca, only reports an 83.4% measles vaccination rate?
Think about the types of parents who live in Ithaca, and on top of that, the types of parents who would send their children to these types of schools. Ithaca’s livelihood is extremely dependent on the two universities located here—Cornell and Ithaca College. They provide everything from low-paying menial labor to middle-income administrative jobs to high-paying faculty positions. Essentially, it’s rather safe to assume a great deal of Ithaca’s permanent, wealthy residency is affiliated with either of these universities.
Then take a look at Ithaca Waldorf School, where students make their own textbooks “first with colorful crayons and later with colored pencils,” or the Lehman Alternative Community School, a high school where students do not receive grades. Sure, normal public schools aren’t great in their pedagogical methods, but these dangerously-low vaccinated alternative schools in Ithaca are a hippie, disaffected liberal parent’s dream.
Additionally, the private schools in Ithaca don’t run cheap. Tuition at the Ithaca Waldorf School is about $10,000 a year for elementary school, and about $11,000 for middle school (junior high school). Clearly, spending upwards of $80,000 for your kid’s or kids’ educations before they are even in high school is only something considerably wealthy parents can afford.
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (D&C) reports:
“There’s a segment of parents in the Ithaca area that are somewhat resistant to having their kids vaccinated — maybe all vaccines, or some. It varies,” said Theresa Lyczko, public information officer for the Tompkins County Health Department. “They tend to be highly educated people. They question a lot of things.”
Some of the reluctance to vaccinate, in Ithaca and similar enclaves of well-educated contrarians around the country, stems from a suspicion — completely discounted by medical experts and public health officials — that vaccines are linked to autism or other illnesses.
In Ithaca, public health workers, physicians and school officials have formed a coalition to encourage more immunization, and have held information sessions for parents.
But convincing vaccine refusers can be difficult.
“If you give them information … that doesn’t change their mind. These are people who tend to be pretty well-informed about some things, but very mistrusting about the data,” said Dr. Cynthia Rand, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry who conducts research on immunization.
In sum, one can surmise that the parents sending their kids to places like the Ithaca Waldorf School and Lehman are a cross-section of the city’s wealthier residents and the city’s “neo-hippies and independent thinkers” as the D&C likes them.
Basically, liberal elitists, just like those in southern California.
Case in point: as many as 60-70% of parents whose children attend the wealthiest of schools in and around Los Angeles, located in posh areas like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, have filed for “personal belief exemptions” to avoid having to vaccinate their kids (like conscientious exemption during the Vietnam War).
This doesn’t conclusively mean these parents are not vaccinating their children, but if they are in fact not, then these schools’ vaccination rates as low as that of sub-Saharan African countries.
Naturally, this isn’t to say all anti-vaxxers are zany liberals; doing so would make me no different that the mainstream media trying to make them out as zany conservatives. What it means, is that the mainstream media narrative, as per usual, is bust.
Pew research conducted in August 2014 showed that 68% of U.S. adults believe it should be required for parents to vaccinate their children whereas 30% believe parents should be able to decide. The data did show that both Republicans and Independents more than Democrats are inclined to say that parents should be able to decide. The percentage of Republicans favoring parent choice grew since 2009 by eight percentage points while the percentage of Democrats dropped by five. Back in 2009, Democrats actually favored parent choice over Republicans by one percentage point.
What explains this large change? One could say that perhaps it has to do with politics, not science.
By 2009, Democrats had grown weary of eight years of Republican presidency and had grown skeptical of government, which explains why they were more inclined to favor parent choice. In 2014, Republicans had become extremely skeptical of government thanks to the Obama presidency, and thus the number of Republicans opposing all types of government programs, mandates, etc. has naturally rose. This is pure speculation.
The Pew research also showed that younger people favor parent choice more than older people do. In a city like Ithaca where nearly everyone is a Democrat this finding doesn’t amount to much, but it’s common knowledge younger people at the national level tend to vote Democratic. This isn’t to say that the anti-vaccine crowd is entirely composed or even majority-composed of Democrats, but it is data that counters the dominant narrative that anti-vaxxers are all Republicans.