New mom Lauren Dunn is terrified to leave her Portland, Oregon, home with her baby son.
As a measles outbreak rips through the area, the 7-month-old is at a vulnerable age—too young to be vaccinated, but likely too old to be protected by maternal antibodies, she said.
“It’s a dangerous time for him to be exposed. And it’s a really scary time for me and my husband,” said Dunn, 37, a former nurse who works at Oregon Health & Science University.
When she has to go out with her baby, she avoids schools and playgrounds —anywhere crowds of kids might be.
“Every time we bring him to day care, it’s nerve-wracking,” she said. “But there’s nothing we can do; my husband and I both work.”
She’s anxious, but she’s also angry—at anti-vaxxer parents she says have stoked the outbreak and hijacked her family’s freedom.
“It’s negligent and self-centered on their part,” she said.
Over the past month, a measles outbreak—fueled by anti-vaxxers—has spread through parts of Oregon and Washington State. The number of people infected by the viciously contagious, all-but-eradicated disease had spiked to 49—in Clark County, Washington and Multnomah County, Oregon —on Monday night. Exposure sites include schools, churches, and Blazers basketball games. And the public health emergency is only expected to get worse, experts said.
The region may be the land of friendly, environmentally aware folks who drink fair trade coffee and drive Priuses. But the measles crisis has chipped away at that polite, laid-back facade. Parents—some worried that their children’s health is imperiled, others who feel under siege for their beliefs—are now at war.
Some moms with newborns have quarantined themselves in their houses to stay safe, parents told me. Others fear sending their kids to school, especially private or charter schools, where vaccination rates are among the lowest in the country.
On the other side, anti-vaxxer moms and dads say they have received death threats from furious parents, blaming them for the outbreak. Moms and dads who stand for “vaccine choice” have become pariahs of the community, they said, for exercising their legal right to opt out of the vaccinations. (In Oregon and Washington, residents can choose not to get the shots for non-religious “personal” reasons.)
“I’ve been told I’m a terrible mother, that families like mine should live in quarantine, that we should be jailed—and that our son should be taken from us,” said Jodie B., a 45-year-old mom who lives near Portland and said she supports “vaccine freedom.”
Measles—which can cause deafness, brain swelling, nerve damage or even death—is one of the most contagious vaccine-preventable infections on earth.
In 2000, health officials declared it eliminated in the United States—only to see it resurface again in recent years amid a growing anti-vaccine movement. A recent study showed the Portland area is a “hotspot” for parents who refuse to vaccinate.
“Portland prides itself on being so progressive, and yet it’s like we’re back in the 1890s,” said Ryan Brady, a father of a 2-year-old, who has a baby on the way. “People are freaked out. Parents with babies are scared to leave the house—and I don’t blame them.”
He blamed anti-vaxxers for the panic.
“The parents who caused this are just plain irresponsible,” said Brady, who lives in Portland’s Hollywood neighborhood, about 15 miles south of the epicenter of the outbreak in Vancouver. “You can raise your kids however you want. But this is a choice that affects other people’s children.”
He said local doctors may be inadvertently encouraging parents not to get their kids vaccinated.
“My wife and I got asked three or four times by doctors and nurses if we were sure we wanted to vaccinate our daughter, ” he said. “The way they phrased it, we almost thought, ‘Wait, should we?’”
He said doctors should be informing patients of their rights and then strongly recommending the shots.
“It adds legitimacy to a bad idea when you’re given that option by a medical professional. It made us feel like opting out was a good, valid choice.”
Among anti-vaxxer parents, tensions are high, too. They feel they are being punished for a decision they think will protect their children—even though health officials say the shots are safe.
Jodie believes her 3-year-old son suffered encephalitis and developed autism as a result of shots he received at a medical center in Texas in 2016. She concedes that there’s no way for her to prove the vaccinations caused his condition. (Study after study has shown no link between vaccines and autism.)
But she doesn’t regret her decision. “I don’t think I should be forced to inject chemicals into my child’s body,” she said.
Another Portland mom, who asked not to be named out of fear of death threats, said she refused to vaccinate because “there are just too many unanswered questions.”
“The long-term health effects of CDC schedule [for vaccines] has never been studied—but they’re still recommended,” the 38-year-old said. The CDC explains the lack of studies on its website: “Observing vaccinated children for many years to look for long-term health conditions would not be practical, and withholding an effective vaccine from children while long-term studies are being done wouldn’t be ethical.”
“I’m not anti-science,” the mom said. “I just believe that vaccine injury is real.”
The Pacific Northwest is home to a special breed of anti-vaxxer, parents and experts said. They include libertarian-leaning, government-can’t-tell-me types and liberals who don’t trust “the establishment” or “big Pharma.” Others are in natural medicine and holistic health circles.
But many of those parents’ beliefs aren’t rooted in fact, said Dr. Peter Hotez, a microbiologist at Baylor University, who also has an autistic daughter.
“The anti-vaccine movement is particularly strong in Oregon and Washington,” Hotez said. “Conspiracy theory plays a big role. There is so much misinformation,” he said.
Not long after the measles outbreak hit the news, the Cottonwood charter school in Portland sent parents a letter warning about the health emergency.
“Our reported vaccination rates are low,” the email read. “Staff and parents without an immunity to measles [may be required] to stay home for 2-3 weeks in order to contain a potential outbreak. This will be disruptive to your families and our classrooms.”
“It was quite terrifying,” said Rachel Hall, 37, whose 5-year-old goes to the school.
Another parent who read the letter fumed, “Insane!!!! Parents that listened to Hollywood stars not vaccinating their kids—this is the result!”
And one mom vented, “Honestly what is wrong with people? Let’s eradicate a disease — but then bring it back just for fun because we’re a stupid society!”
Lisa Goren, 44, who lives in Portland with her 1-year-old, thinks she knows why the anti-vaxx movement has hit Oregon and Washington.
“The West is founded on principles of being pioneers—and having rugged independence,” she said. “But these parents don’t understand herd immunity. For it to work, we all have to do it.”