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As Anti-Vax Movement Grows In Missouri, Families With Sick Children Fear For Their Lives

Alex Smith
KCUR 89.3
Christie Lightle, whose daughter Izzy (far right) was treated for leukemia, was surprised by the backlash she got from neighbors after speaking out about the importance of vaccinations.

Vaccinations not only protect your health, they protect the health of the community by slowing or stopping the spread of illness.

But Missouri now has some of the lowest measles vaccination rates in the nation, and that’s especially troubling for families with children who can’t get the shots for medical reasons.

When Izzy Lightle of Savannah, Missouri, was almost 2, she was diagnosed with leukemia, and doctors put a halt to her getting vaccines.

The illness, combined with chemotherapy treatment, left her with an immune system so weak that her parents, Christie and Jason, had to rush her to the hospital at the first signs of a cold or flu.  

To stay healthy, she relied on herd immunity, the collective effect when a large majority of people get vaccinated.

On social media, the family gave regular updates to the community on their daughter’s condition, trusting neighbors would do their part to keep her well.

“Because I don’t know how many times it was posted, ‘Please pray for us because we’re on the way to the emergency room,’ I felt people knew how serious her situation was, how immuno-compromised she was, how susceptible, how serious it would be for her to catch something,” Jason Lightle says.

Losing herd immunity

Only .1% of Missouri Kindergarteners have vaccine exemptions for medical reasons, but for these children, measles, which is highly contagious, can be deadly.

The latest survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2017, Missouri had the lowest rate among the 50 states for measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations for children between 19 and 35 months: just 85.8 percent.

Experts say herd immunity for measles breaks down when the rate drops below 90 percent.

Credit Children's Mercy Hospital
Children's Mercy Hospital
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Barbara Pahud of Children's Mercy Hospital warns that measles could spread like 'wildfire' in Missouri communities with low vaccination rates.

“At 85 percent, that means we’re dangerously falling from that number,” says Dr. Barbara Pahud, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Mercy Hospital and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Pahud says that affects not just the individuals who aren’t vaccinated.

The single vaccine dose that toddlers typically get is about 93% effective against measles. But when measles enters a community after herd immunity breaks down, toddlers are much more likely to be exposed to the virus and their immunity may be put to the test.

Pahud says that many Missouri communities are setting themselves up for measles to spread “like wildfire.”

“We don’t have an outbreak right now, but you can see it’s surrounding us,” Pahud says. “We’re at risk. It’s just a matter of time for that wind to blow our way and to make that fire catch.”

Experts believe lack of healthcare access and delays in checkups, rather than vaccine skepticism, account for why most kids aren't getting the vaccines.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has been encouraging families to keep up on their vaccinations, and Gov. Mike Parson publically got a flu vaccination in September to encourage others to do the same.

Growing anti-vaxxer movement

Still, the anti-vax movement appears to be growing in Missouri.

While some states have been cracking down on people claiming religious or philosophical exemptions, Missouri’s rate of religious exemptions for vaccines in 2018-2019 grew to 2.4% for kindergarteners, up about 13% from the previous year.  

At least one Missouri lawmaker has been working on behalf of those families.

Rep. Lynn Morris, a Republican from Nixa, introduced a bill in the 2019 legislative session that would ban “discrimination” on the part of doctor’s offices, day cares, public schools and colleges against families who have received vaccination exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

The chairman of the House Health and Mental Health Policy Committee, Rep. Mike Stephens, a Republican from Bolivar, blocked a vote on the bill, according to Morris, but the Nixa lawmaker vowed to overhaul the measure and reintroduce it next year.

Izzy Lightle, who’s now 6, was successfully treated for leukemia. Just a few weeks ago, Christie and Jason were able to breathe a sigh of relief when their daughter finally completed her immunization schedule.

But Christie remains concerned that people are not getting vaccinated.

She recently appeared on a local TV segment to explain why getting vaccinated is so important for people like her daughter. After the segment aired, she was blindsided by attacks on social media coming from her neighbors.

One even said that Izzy’s leukemia had been caused by toxins that she falsely claimed were present in vaccines.  

In the aftermath of the social media firestorm, the family discovered that, even as Izzy’s health was at its most fragile, she may have been more vulnerable than they thought because of such anti-vaccine ideas.  

“We didn’t realize it had touched our community,” Christie says. “We’ve kind of discovered, just recently, people that we didn’t realize don’t vaccinate, and it’s surprising. It’s really surprising.”

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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