The XX Factor

The Vaccine Battle Is Ruining Friendships and Breaking Up Playgroups

In the wake of the measles outbreak, parents are asking each other if their kids are vaccinated.  

Photo by Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

There are now more than 100 confirmed cases in the current outbreak of measles, most of which are in California, where parents are allowed to claim both religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccines. Pro-vaccine parents, particularly parents of infants and the immune-compromised, are starting to ask their peers, playgroups, and preschools about vaccine status. That does not always go well.

The New York Daily News talked to New York moms who are thoroughly freaked out by the idea of nonvaccinated kids in their midst. At one pediatrics practice in Brooklyn, moms are demanding a separate waiting room for nonvaccinated kids. Another local mom told me she’s no longer taking her son to a local toddler play space because the woman who runs the joint is open about not vaccinating her child.

Then there is the San Francisco mother I spoke to earlier this week who told me that she’s fallen out with one of her oldest friends because her friend refuses to vaccinate her two children. The San Francisco mom of an infant and a toddler (who asked that I not print her name) had booked a trip to see her friend in her small Northern California town before the outbreak happened. “I had seen the KQED article on the vax study and all the California schools and their opt-out rates a few weeks ago. I noticed a ton of schools up in [my friend’s town] that had super high rates (some of the highest in the state),” she said in an email. Because she was planning to introduce her infant to this friend on the trip, the mom initiated a Gchat conversation about vaccinations.

“I asked her what school her youngest went to, and what his school opt-out rate was. She asked why, and I said ‘It seems like lots of [schools in her town] have high rates, aren’t you scared for your kids?’ ” The friend responded:

Yeah we have a very high unvaccinated population at our school we are among them ;) thats what happens when you roll with the crazy hippies lol. they’ve had the tdap but not nearly all. afraid to be around us now? :p

The mom’s friend said that she wasn’t afraid that her children would get sick, that they’re statistically more likely to get hurt doing “a million other things,” that she didn’t want to pump all those chemicals into “tiny bodies,” and that they will get their vaccines eventually, just not on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ schedule.* The mom ended up canceling her trip. Her friend wrote back: “i have no judgment (as i hope you don’t judge me from the other side) we all have to do what we think is best for our littles.”

“If I hadn’t brought this whole thing up she wouldn’t have thought twice about having my little one exposed to all these kids with no vaccinations,” the mom said. She added that at this point she doesn’t even want to see her friend once her infant is vaccinated and that it’s made her question all her friends in the Bay Area. She brings her toddler on lots of play dates and has never asked about vaccine status. “I am trying not to be paranoid, but I am very cautious about what parts of the Bay we are going to,” she said. “So far I am avoiding taking my little one to indoor play spaces, and if we take my toddler to a museum or something, my little one is covered up and I change my toddler as soon as we get home.”

It’s not just in California—ground zero for both pockets of unimmunized children and the current measles outbreak—where parents are getting more cautious. Tiffany Westlie Pondelik, an Arizona mom of a 2-year-old, says she has noticed parents cautiously talking about vaccine status since the most recent outbreak (there have been seven reported cases in Arizona and up to 1,000 people potentially exposed to the disease). She’s relieved that in her circle, everyone has come out as pro-vaccination. She’s currently touring preschools for her daughter, and Pondelik said, “My first question is, ‘Do you ask that all children are vaccinated?’ If their answer is no, we are outta there. I won’t risk it and don’t care to listen to the argument otherwise.” According to the Arizona Republic, vaccination rates at Arizona kindergartens range from 30 to 100 percent, with the Tucson Waldorf School at 30 percent.

Though talking about vaccine status can cause painful rifts, bringing it out in the open with those close to you may be one way to get anti-vaxxers to change their minds. As Phil Plait pointed out in Slate, raging at people who won’t vaccinate their kids and calling them stupid just makes them dig in their heels more. Some preliminary research has shown that reframing vaccination as a positive choice, rather than a mandatory sentence from big government, might help anti-vaxxers change their minds. Trying to have a real conversation with someone you care about might move the needle a little more.

*Correction, Feb. 5, 2015: This post originally misidentified the American Academy of Pediatrics as the American Association of Pediatrics.

More of Slate’s vaccines coverage: