Bastion of Anti-Vaccine Fervor: Progressive Waldorf Schools

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CHESTNUT RIDGE, N.Y. — The mother of an unvaccinated child here in the New York suburbs says eating papaya helps to combat measles. The father of another child who has not been immunized believes that big pharmaceutical companies are paying millions of dollars to doctors, government officials and even judges to bury the truth about vaccine complications.

Another mother says the souls of her children are on a journey that vaccines would impede. “As a parent, for me, a lot of my job is to just not put extra obstacles in that soul’s way,” she said.

All three parents represent an anti-vaccine fervor on the left that is increasingly worrying health authorities. They often cluster around progressive private schools that are part of the Waldorf educational movement, and at the Waldorf school here, 60 percent of the school’s 300 or so students were not vaccinated against measles and other highly contagious diseases as of late last year.

The measles epidemic in the New York region has largely spread among ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Rockland County and in New York City. But health authorities fear it could jump to other unvaccinated groups like the ones linked to the children of families who attend Waldorf schools.

Rockland County has recorded 266 cases of measles over the past nine months, even though more people are getting immunized, according to the latest health data.

Officials fear that hundreds more cases of measles have gone unreported, and Mr. Day issued a third state of emergency two weeks ago.

Dr. Michael L. Weitzman, a professor of pediatrics and public health at New York University, said health authorities are now turning their attention to other pockets of unvaccinated children beyond ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, including those in Waldorf schools.

“This is such a sad and preventable problem that can have tragic consequences, not just for the unimmunized and infected child, but for any unimmunized individual who comes in contact with him or her,” Professor Weitzman said.

The Green Meadow school sits amid sprawling hills in the New York City suburbs. Pastel colors are used in decorations to avoid inducing anxiety in children. Dolls, crafted to appear gender neutral, are made of natural products like wool.

Behind the classrooms, 3-year-olds take lessons in the “Forest School,” where they are taught how to build a fire, tap syrup from maple trees and learn poems about nature and the seasons by acting them out.

“We need them to know that the world is a good place, a beautiful place,” said Jessica Oswald, a teacher. “We try to show reverence to the trees, to the bees, to each other.”

In interviews, parents at Green Meadow said their skepticism about vaccines was not rooted in ignorance but in their own research. They said they scoured the internet and public libraries for vaccine findings, then shared their conclusions with one another.

Elizabeth, who said she has a master’s degree in public health policy, called for comparative studies between vaccinated and unvaccinated children over a prolonged period of time.

“Let’s put it on and see how healthy everyone is,” she said.

Vaccine advocates noted that such studies had already been done.

Doctors in Denmark and other countries with national health systems and central medical records have followed hundreds of thousands of children for decades and concluded that vaccines are safe, prevent diseases and do not cause autism.

Some of the parents said they distrusted the medical profession and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We could have said that the science on antibiotics was settled a few decades ago,” said Elena, another parent, who said she has degrees in applied mathematics.

“They were successful and prescribed liberally. It was irresponsible not to take them. They were considered one of the biggest advances in modern medicine,” she said. “And now, we are in a place where antibiotic resistance is likely a bigger threat to human existence than any disease for which vaccines are available, due to overuse.”

Another parent, Paul, said, he believes “the science is behind the times on this.”

“There’s a lot of research now that seems to indicate a big negative side to the vaccinations and that not having the natural wild measles also deprives you of some health benefits,” he said.

Health authorities said Paul’s view was absolutely not true, but is typical of the misinformation spreading among vaccine opponents.

Many of these arguments have been embraced or allowed to flourish unopposed at Green Meadow because of the school ethos, even though not all Waldorf parents oppose vaccination.

“People come to them as a kind of withdrawal from the mainstream,” Elisa Sobo, a professor of anthropology at San Diego State University, referring to Waldorf schools.

Professor Sobo has studied opposition to immunization among Waldorf school parents. (She herself is a Waldorf parent, but is supportive of vaccines.)

Pediatricians and epidemiologists said that suspicions about vaccines have emerged largely because the effects of measles and other infections have faded from public memory.

“I’ve seen children die of measles, kids devastated by rubella, children becoming sterile from mumps,” Professor Weitzman said. “Parents can have these kind of opinions because they haven’t seen the devastation that these diseases can cause.”

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