When Kathryn Alcaide gave birth to her first son Brady in November of 2011, she described him as a happy and healthy baby. Alcaide has two older daughters and wasn't daunted by the early weeks of parenthood. Everything seemed to go as expected. That is, until Brady got a cold at 6 weeks old.
A sniffle and a cough turned into a high fever and extremely labored breathing. Countless doctors appointments and hospital stays and no true answers. Three weeks later, Brady died.
Only after he died was it determined that he had pertussis, also known as whooping cough -- what used to be an old-fashioned disease, one we thought was over with in this country. Brady's death became a rallying cry and despite her immense pain, Kathryn Alcaide began telling her story to the press.
Brady's story pointed to a wider issue: pertussis has been on the rise since the 1980s, and in 2014, the Centers for Disease Control reported an 18 percent increase in cases from 2013.
Thankfully, tragic cases like Brady's are still rare. But there is also my friend, a single mom who is the breadwinner for her family. She contracted pertussis from her son's progressive preschool in Washington, DC. The cough progressed and she ended up in the hospital, missing weeks of work and parenting time.
I remembered reading about Brady in 2012 in my native Massachusetts, but not taking it too seriously. After all, our local school had an almost 99 percent kindergarten vaccination rate.
But in February 2015, my family moved from Boston to the west side of Los Angeles. Before you accuse me of East Coast snobbery, let me tell you that I love living in LA. Before I moved here, it never occurred to me that the kids I saw every day at drop off and pick up would not have their shots. But sure enough, the elementary school my son attends has only a 74.7 percent Kindergarten MMR compliance rate according to a chart in the Los Angeles Times -- meaning we have lost the protection afforded to children when a key majority is vaccinated, or what doctors call "herd immunity." According to the LA Times, public health experts say when 8 percent or more of a population is unvaccinated, herd immunity is lost and diseases like pertussis or measles can spread quickly. And I was shocked to learn how easy it is for parents in California to decide against vaccinations. I spoke with a few local pediatricians who said they tried to convince parents to vaccinate but ultimately felt helpless in a wave of popular opinion and misinformation against childhood vaccines.
And indeed, during our first week here a mom came up to me in Ralphs supermarket; I had the baby with me. She asked me, did my doctor know I had the baby out? Was I scared? What about measles? This is craziness, I thought. I'm supposed to quarantine my baby?
In California, an important bill known as SB277 is currently making its way through the legislative process. Sponsored by state senators Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a pediatrician, and Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), SB77 eliminates "personal belief" as an excuse to not vaccinate children. As with anything related to vaccines, the bill is receiving a significant amount of attention both in California and around the country.
So what would enacting 277 mean? Parents can still elect not to vaccinate their kids -- they just can't send unvaccinated children to public school. There are no exemptions in SB277, unless they have a medical exemption.
In this debate, people are focused on religious freedom and parental rights -- none of which are violated in this bill. That being said, it's time to focus on something else -- namely, the interconnectedness of the world we live in. What is yours is mine and what is mine is yours -- whether you like it or not. Especially when it comes to illness. We rely on each other in ways we aren't even aware of -- we share thoughts, stories, viruses. My oldest son is in kindergarten at the neighborhood public school and my second son is in pre-school. I am blessed to also have a 4 month old daughter at home, who often comes with us to drop off and pick up. My daughter only recently received her first round of vaccines -- but she is not fully immunized. So my infant daughter relies on our family to keep her safe. In turn, I rely on my son's school to keep him safe -- which means, I rely on fellow parents to their kids safe to keep our school safe to keep his kindergarten class safe to keep my baby safe. We're basically playing public health jenga.
It's still unclear where Brady contracted pertussis (his entire family tested negative for the disease) but his death shines a light on the fact that SB277 is absolutely necessary. While parents may differ on many issues, all can agree that Brady's death is our worst nightmare. Everyone wants their child to be healthy and happy -- and that is what SB277 wants, too. This bill is not about isolating kids or demonizing personal beliefs, it's about creating a community of health and respect, compassion and care. When we're not protecting ourselves, we're not protecting each other.
Drop off shouldn't have to be dangerous.
If you agree, please visit vaccinatecalifornia.org and let State Legislators know where you stand!