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Marisela Alcala leaned down so she was inches from her son’s face. She tapped his nose and gently rubbed his cheeks to distract him as the injections went into his legs in rapid succession.
The Sonoma resident’s 2-month-old, Mason McKinnon, was receiving five different immunizations on a recent morning at the Petaluma Health Center. One was done orally to prevent rotavirus infections, but others like the Hib, pneumococcal and a combination vaccine of DTaP, polio and Hepatitis B required needles.
Ensuring her son’s health at such a vulnerable age makes these types of painful doctor’s visits a necessary evil, Alcala said. She wants her two young children to play outside carefree and stay enrolled in public schools so they develop strong social skills.
“There’s people that don’t believe in vaccines, and I think that’s crazy,” she said. “With the (measles) and stuff, when all that was going around, why would you put other people at risk just because they don’t believe in it? I don’t know, I’d rather get all my kids vaccinated.”
With school underway citywide, families across Petaluma have been rushing to their doctors to make sure their children are fully vaccinated, an aspect of the back-to-school process becoming increasingly more regulated as lawmakers continue to bolster immunization policies.
But a government effort to require so-called “anti-vaxxers” to vaccinate their children has many parents in Petaluma fearful of an agenda they believe is eroding civil liberties as the contentious debate over vaccinations persists.
Others, however, welcome the new laws, and view the low immunization rates at some schools as a public health risk that could make Petaluma vulnerable to an outbreak of an infectious disease.
Preventable illnesses like measles, which the U.S. declared eliminated in 2000, have made a comeback this year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 1,200 measles cases have been reported, the most since 1992 and more than eight of the last nine years combined.
Before widespread use of the vaccine, measles caused over 2 million deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization. In 2017, it killed approximately 110,000 worldwide, and most were children under 5 years old.
Every school in California is required to provide its immunization records to the state during the fall. Out of 17 Petaluma schools that have an enrollment higher than 20 students, the percentage of students entering kindergarten with all of their vaccines was roughly 89% for the 2018-19 school year.
Medical experts say herd immunity, the term for a population’s resistance against the spread of a contagious disease, is typically established when vaccination rates are between 92% and 95%. When herd immunity is in place, those that can’t get vaccines due to compromising health conditions are protected.
Only six schools met the 95% threshold to qualify as a fully vaccinated institution last year, and none of those were west of Highway 101, which geographically splits Petaluma. The lowest immunization rate of 45% belonged to Live Oak Charter School, a Waldorf-inspired academy located at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds.
Where things stand today
The vaccine debate is a testy subject where widespread anecdotes, endless Internet material and growing questions about western medicine have made a dent in immunization rates over the last two decades.
Many in the anti-vaccination movement argue that vaccines are unnecessary, ineffective or dangerous.
Immunization Rates at Petaluma Schools
SAFEST (95% or higher)
Corona Creek Elementary
La Tercera Elementary
Miwok Valley Elementary Charter
River Montessori Elementary Charter
Sonoma Mountain Elementary
MODERATELY VULNERABLE (90-94.9%)
Grant Elementary 91%
Loma Vista Immersion Academy 93%
Old Adobe Elementary Charter 93%
McDowell Elementary 90%
McNear Elementary 92%
Meadow Elementary 92%
MORE VULNERABLE (80-89.9%)
Cinnabar Charter 80%
Mary Collins Charter School at Cherry Valley 84%
McKinley Elementary 88%
Valley Vista Elementary 89%
MOST VULNERABLE (Less than 80%)
Live Oak Charter School 45%
*The school data provided to the state is based on reporting in the fall, and may change during the school year. To view an interactive map where you can search vaccination rates by zip code, click here.
Source: California Department of Public Health