The irony of the vaccine controversy is that most often it's the parents who should know better that don't. Even though the original 1998 report that first claimed a link between vaccines and autism has now been thoroughly debunked, the vaccination rate in wealthy, progressive enclaves around the country continues to plummet--a trend best represented locally by Seattle's Waldorf School.
With a tuition of $17,000 per year, Waldorf is expensive. It also caters to a crunchier crowd--an Australian outpost once banned rugby because it thought the "unpredictability of the bounce" would cause frustration among children. Facts that make it unsurprising that Waldorf has the highest percentage of unvaccinated kids in King County.
According to Department of Health data shared with Seattle Weekly, in 2009, the last year for which records are available, 140 of Waldorf School's 298 enrolled students were exempt from immunization.
Waldorf's exemption rate of 47 percent is far and away the highest among the 475 King County schools surveyed by the DoH. It's also nearly 40 percent higher than the herd immunity threshold, i.e., the proportion of immune individuals in a population necessary to prevent contagious diseases from flaring up--a fact that worries Michele Roberts, DoH's immunization program health-promotion manager.
"We're concerned any time a school has high exemption rates, because they are more at risk for preventable diseases," she says.
That includes diseases long thought to be dead. In 2009 two unvaccinated children in Pennsylvania were killed by a strain of influenza all but wiped out in America 20 years ago. And last year there were more cases of whooping cough in California than in any other year since 1947, before vaccinations became widespread.
Nettie Fabrie, Waldorf's head of pedagogy, laughs when told of her school's ranking. She says she's not surprised and that the figures have everything to do with the kinds of parents Waldorf attracts.
"We have parents who are very conscious about food, the environment, and the whole medical system," she says. "Basically, the parents are willing to ask themselves complicated questions. That is an attitude a lot of them have."
Fabrie says Waldorf neither encourages or discourages its parents regarding vaccination: "We just leave it up to them." A live-and-let-live philosophy other Waldorf schools have been accused of violating.
In 2001, in a move meant to counteract growing suspicions that an anti-immunization stance was Waldorf policy, the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education released a statement saying that "whether or not to inoculate a child against communicable disease should be a matter of parental choice." And in a report six years later from The Australian, a frustrated Waldorf parent told the paper that teachers at the school recommended against immunizing his children because it would lead to the "bestialisation of humans."
Either way, whether Waldorf's parents are just more enlightened than the rest or dangerously delusional about vaccines, should the day come when an outbreak of a once-dormant disease makes headlines in Seattle, we know where we'll go looking for Patient Zero.