Vaccine safety: Non-vaccinated children have increased in the county. In the last two decades, skepticism of vaccines safety has as well. |

Vaccine safety: Non-vaccinated children have increased in the county. In the last two decades, skepticism of vaccines safety has as well.

Sam Corey
Staff Writer


Measles is a contagious disease caused by a virus. It spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Measles starts with fever. Soon after, it causes a cough, runny nose, and red eyes. Then a rash of tiny, red spots breaks out. It starts at the head and spreads to the rest of the body.

Measles can be prevented with MMR vaccine. The vaccine protects against three diseases: measles, mumps, and rubella. CDC recommends children get two doses of MMR vaccine, starting with the first dose at 12 through 15 months of age, and the second dose at 4 through 6 years of age. Teens and adults should also be up to date on their MMR vaccination.

The MMR vaccine is very safe and effective. Two doses of MMR vaccine are about 97% effective at preventing measles; one dose is about 93% effective. Children may also get MMRV vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella (chickenpox). This vaccine is only licensed for use in children who are 12 months through 12 years of age.

Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States. Of these, approximately 500,000 cases were reported each year to CDC; of these, 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 developed encephalitis (brain swelling) from measles. Since then, widespread use of measles vaccine has led to a greater than 99% reduction in measles cases compared with the pre-vaccine era.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misinterpreted the explicit mission of the Physicians for Informed Consent and the beliefs of the nonprofit. It is an “organization dedicated to safeguarding informed consent in vaccination.” It also does not claim vaccines to be more dangerous than viruses. The Union regrets the error. Visit for information on Physicians for Informed Consent.

Measles outbreaks are on the rise.

The U.S. has experienced over 800 cases this year, making it the worst in decades. No deaths have occurred, but 66 people have been hospitalized. At the University of California, Los Angeles, hundreds were quarantined for fear of exposing others to measles.

While a measles outbreak has not occurred in Nevada County, public officials are concerned that its low rates of vaccinations could lead to such an outcome.

“What is occurring in New York and recently in Washington illustrates that areas with low measles vaccination rates are particularly vulnerable to measles outbreaks,” said Ken Cutler, Nevada County Public Health officer.

Cutler said while school-required vaccinations in the county have risen recently, vaccination rates are still quite low.

“Nevada County has one of the lowest overall rates of school vaccinations,” Cutler wrote in an email to The Union. “Lower vaccination rates are associated with increased risk for outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses like measles, chickenpox, mumps, etc.”

Cutler referred to data explaining that from 2012-13, medical exemptions in Nevada County were at 0.12%. In 2017-18, that number rose to 7.7%. This, he said, is because personal belief exemptions were removed as an option to opt children out of vaccinations.

Infographic created by Digital Engagement Editor Samantha Sullivan

According to a report by Kaiser Health News, 30% of kindergartners in Nevada City had medical exemptions from vaccinations in the 2017-18 school year, including 52% of students at Yuba River Charter School.

Sharyn Turner, school health services coordinator for the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools, said licensed physicians are printing medical exemptions for vaccinations. Turner said the significant business has transferred from medical marijuana prescriptions. Now that cannabis is legal, that money has moved elsewhere.

“The word on the street is that they’re getting (paid) $800 per exemption letter,” said Turner.

Since 2013, the Medical Board of California has received 106 complaints about “potentially improper vaccine exemptions,” according to Vice News. One doctor, Ron Kennedy, was found writing at least 50 exemption letters “using nearly identical form letters” for students.

Vanderbilt University Professor Kathryn Edwards suggests about 1% of kids require a medical exemption due to their compromised immune systems, a smaller figure than the 10 to 25% of kindergartners that are sometimes exempt.

In general, the 2017-18 school year saw 95% of California kindergartners become fully vaccinated.

why so skeptical?

While the numbers are inconclusive, as parents not vaccinating their children are often stigmatized, there is a significant population of vaccine skeptics in Nevada County. The Union received emails from many people who don’t vaccinate their children, believing the side effects from vaccinations override the benefits.

Sheri Fogarty, a Grass Valley resident, said she has a pre-medical nutrition background and that she is an evidence-based individual. She is also skeptical of the benefits of vaccinations.

“I am a very science-based person,” she said. “I believe in climate change.”

Fogarty believes that viruses, like measles, are cyclical, meaning people naturally gain immunity to the disease without harm to themselves, and therefore do not need medical intervention. She said vaccines, in fact, are harmful.

“If you look at reactions to vaccines, there are more deaths from the (mumps, measles and rubella vaccine) than there have been to measles,” she said.

The claim that the measles vaccine caused more deaths than measles itself was also found to be inaccurate by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The center says while there have been rare deaths caused by vaccines, because anything can be reported to the U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, including anecdotal or second-hand information, there is not scientific proof to support this claim.

Public health officials, like Turner, are concerned with the ramifications of not vaccinating for things like measles.

“We don’t know what can happen to your child,” she said, noting that children, especially those with health complications, can die from the virus. Turner referenced a flight attendant now in a coma because she contracted measles.

“Everybody’s system is different,” said Turner. An individual with measles may just have a fever, but could expose someone to the disease with a much worse outcome.

Turner said although it is true that some vaccines wane over time, the measles vaccine does not.

“Measles is a very effective vaccine,” she said.

Turner said there are infrequent cases when children should opt out of vaccinations, and there are sometimes side effects from vaccinations for others, but both occasions are rare.

Nevada County resident Norman Ely, who is deeply skeptical of vaccines, has not vaccinated his two children and believes vaccines to be dangerous.

“If I ran the U.S., I would immediately stop all vaccines and gather a special commission to study vaccinated (versus) unvaccinated kids (data is already there we just need to look at it), eliminate conflicts of interest in our vaccine regulatory agencies, and automate the (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System’s) reporting system for better reporting,” Ely wrote in an email to The Union.

protecting whom?

Nevada County Board of Education member Ashley Neumann, who said she is in favor of vaccines, agrees there needs to be more oversight over vaccination companies, which she said currently have no liability for their products.

“Yeah, we should be able to sue vaccine companies,” she said, as people can in other countries.

In exchange for government protection from liability, vaccine companies must act in accordance with the Food and Drug Administration.

Neumann said this concerns her from a consumer protection standpoint. She doesn’t want poor people not to be able to acquire welfare checks if they don’t vaccinate their kids, as referenced by KPCC, a public radio station in Pasadena, California.

Moreover, Neumann wants more variation in vaccines so they don’t carry things like fetal cells or animal products.

“If disease is what we’re after here, then give people more, safer, ethical options to get them vaccinated,” she said.

More broadly, Neumann’s concern of vaccine injuries is connected to general death reporting errors made by the Centers for Disease Control. She said a Johns Hopkins University study found “that more than 250,000 deaths per year are due to medical error in the United States.”

The report says medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the U.S., not respiratory disease, as found by the Centers for Disease Control.

Fogarty, for her part, thinks public health officials and politicians advocating for vaccines are well-intentioned but not as knowledgable as they could be.

“I don’t think the doctors who are pushing this are doing it out of a bad heart,” said Fogarty.

Fogarty’s family, including her son — a cardiac intensive care unit nurse — is not as skeptical of vaccines and follows what he says is the “best practice” of getting vaccinated.

Still, as a parent, Fogarty believes not vaccinating is the best way to keep herself, and others, healthy and safe.

“(As a mother), we care for our children and we want them to be safe,” said Fogarty.

Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at

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