Michigan disease outbreaks spark backlash

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News
Beth Olosky of Williamsburg, with boys from her day care, helped organize a brigade of parents to sanitize a local school.

The anti-vaccination movement blamed for a rise in U.S. cases of whooping cough, measles and other communicable diseases is causing tensions among parents — especially in places like Traverse City where outbreaks have occurred.

Opponents of the movement are speaking out in blogs, on social media and even in cartoons. A comic strip by science cartoonist Maki Naro, challenging "anti-vaxxer" ideas, has been widely circulated on the Internet.

The backlash intensified this month following a measles outbreak at California's Disneyland. From Jan. 1-28, measles spread to 91 people in 14 states. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said most of those cases are linked to the Disneyland outbreak and blamed declining vaccination rates. The CDC supports the conclusion of the Institute of Medicine that there is no relationship between vaccines and autism rates in children.

Melinda Gates, of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, took aim at vaccine naysayers this week, telling the Huffington Post that unlike people in many developing nations, Americans have "forgotten what measles deaths look like."

Steve Bockmann, the Farmington Hills parent of a 16-year-old with autism, said parents who even question vaccines are "being told that you're drinking the Kool-Aid, you're uneducated, you're stupid." He said many parents who now don't vaccinate once religiously followed recommended vaccination schedules, but changed their minds after seeing adverse effects in their own children.

"Right now those folks arguing for educated vaccination choices are getting hammered online by friends, family and strangers," said Bockman, who said he believes his child was injured by the vaccines but was not blaming the vaccines for his child's autism. ".... This Disney thing has turned up the heat on anyone daring to question vaccine safety."

The backlash has grown in Michigan after the proportion of vaccination waivers granted for philosophical, religious or medical reasons spiked from 2.1 percent in 2009 to 11 percent in 2010. The rate has since declined to 7.8 percent in 2013, which remains two to more than three times the rate of waivers that prevailed from 2001 to 2009.

News of the Disneyland outbreak has spurred many families to get their kids vaccinated, according to Macomb County Health Director William Ridella.

"All of our locations have seen an increase (in people seeking vaccinations) over the past couple of weeks since news of the outbreaks, especially the measles at Disneyland," Ridella said.

Wendy Trute, health officer with the Grand Traverse County Health Department, said she has seen an increase in people seeking vaccinations after listening to news reports about the outbreaks. Most in demand is the booster for pertussis, also called whooping cough.

"Many of the adults didn't realize they needed a booster (until hearing it on the news)," Trute said.

State health officials in December wrote a new rule requiring people seeking waivers to show up in person at their county health department where health workers will provide them with correct information about the health risks.

Heather Skrocki, a 27-year-old barista at Good Harbor Coffee & Bakery in Traverse City, said vaccinations are a touchy subject at the popular gathering place following outbreaks of both pertussis and measles, diseases that can be easily prevented by vaccinations

"Up here we've had an issue with whooping cough, so it's a hot topic here — there's tensions between parents, and I even hear it in the coffee shop," Skrocki said.

Whooping cough on rise

Pertussis has been making a comeback across the country. Michigan Department of Community Health epidemiologists blame lack of vaccinations for 1,300 cases last year of the bacterial infection in the state. The highly contagious respiratory tract infection is marked by a severe hacking cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like "whoop," according to the Mayo Clinic.

Bob Swanson, director of the Division of Immunization with the Michigan Department of Community Health, said it's particularly worrisome for infants and children too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations.

Michigan's last death from whooping cough was an infant in 2012, he said. The disease also can spread to teenagers and adults whose immunity has faded and who could then pass it on to an infant.

"It's very important to make sure that everyone around that infant is vaccinated," Swanson said, noting that people with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients, also are vulnerable.

A whooping cough outbreak that started in Traverse City in mid-October — and is still going on — has spread to children at 19 schools, Northwestern Michigan College as well as day cares and preschools, said Trute with the Grand Traverse County Health Department. To date, there have been 90 confirmed cases and 160 probable cases associated with the outbreak..

Grand Traverse Academy, the 1,200-student charter school where the outbreak began, closed for a week because of the high number of absences. Perhaps contributing to the wild-fire contagion, children who attend the school come from across the region, and 17 percent of the school's children have vaccination waivers. Grand Traverse Academy officials did not return calls from The News.

In the midst of that outbreak, Grand Traverse County health officials received word that two young adults in the region had come down with measles while traveling outside the country. The measles quickly spread to three more people, two adults and a child. None of the five had been vaccinated.

The United States experienced its worst year for measles in 2014 since the turn of the century, with 644 cases in 27 states, including the five in Traverse City.

Health officials announced Michigan's first case of measles for 2015 last week in an Oakland County adult was not vaccinated, and state health officials say it might be related to a California outbreak at Disneyland.

Operation Wipe Out

Asked why the Grand Traverse region has so many parents who don't vaccinate, Trute surmised it could have something to do with the area's affluence and a penchant for independence and non-traditional health care.

"In areas where you tend to have higher socioeconomic status, a lot of those parents choose to either do alternate (vaccination) schedules where they wait longer, or they choose not to vaccinate," Trute said. "Or they could be just choosing certain vaccines.

"If you Google (for information), you're going to initially see anti-vaccination articles," Trute notes. "And the names of the websites look like they might be credible, but when you begin to look at it, you can see that it's not."

In nearby Williamsburg, between Traverse City and Kalkaska, Beth Olosky was very worried by news reports about the outbreaks.

A mother of five, she has children in school and a 1-year-old baby, and she runs a day care. Determined to keep them safe, Olosky organized a brigade of parents to wash down Mill Creek Elementary School.

"This whooping cough, I've been watching very intently, because its a very real thing and a lot of people choose not to vaccinate," she said. "There were tons of possible cases, and all you had to do it come into contact with somebody and it could close schools."

Olosky initially reached out to nine friends on Facebook and invited them to drop disinfectant wipes off at the school. Then the movement grew.

"Within two days we had more than 30 large containers of Clorox wipes delivered to the schools. They were getting it in bulk at Sam's (Club) and dropping them off."

Soon after, the parents started wiping down the school in shifts, beginning with the lockers, then moving to door knobs, light switches, desk tops and even pencils.

"I had moms saying, 'I'll take the first grade section,' 'I'll take the second grade section.' We call it Operation Wipe Out. We were determined that our school was not going to be one of the schools that came down with it."