In a recent post we noted an apparent factual inconsistency: Vaccine opponents are often described as being motivated by religion and animus toward science, but the most public vaccine opponents do not appear to have these characteristics.
We’ve found more data showing that opponents of childhood vaccines are predominantly located in wealthy, liberal communities.
In our post on the risks of H1N1 (“swine”) flu and the ethics of declining vaccination, we noted that some members of the Washington Post’s panel of commentators on religion were disturbed by what they perceived as anti-scientific attitudes among political conservatives, religious believers, and people who have abused religious exemptions.
Who are the people who oppose childhood vaccination?
We reported results from a Los Angeles Times study showing that the rate of exemption from vaccination among kindergärtners in Southern California was highest on the Westside, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and the central Orange County coast. We noted that all of these districts are wealthy and politically liberal.
We’ve looked more closely at the data collected by the LA Times. The Times provides an interactive utility that ranks elementary schools by the percentage of kindergärtners that have not received State-mandated immunizations.
For Los Angeles County, seven of the ten elementary schools with the highest rates of exemption from State-mandated vaccination (51% to 82% exempt) are private and three are public charters (40% to 41% exempted). The private schools charge tuition, the public charters do not. Although tuition rates for these schools are not published, there appears to be little doubt that they are expensive.
Many of these schools have a distinct political orientation. Five of the top ten schools (including one of the public charters) are “Waldorf” schools. Two others (Play Mountain Place in Los Angeles, 46.2% exempted; P.S. #1 Elementary in Santa Monica, 43.8%) also display a politically liberal character.
ARE VACCINATION EXEMPTIONS MORE PREVALENT AMONG RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS?
Only one of the top ten schools is parochial: the South Bay Faith Academy in Redondo Beach (45.2% exempted). The school’s website is cryptic, providing access only to “members.” Based on other information here and here, this school appears to be politically conservative.
In sum, one of the top ten schools is religious; nine are not. One of the top ten schools could be described as politically “conservative”; seven could be described as politically “liberal.” Two are public charters with an indeterminate political philosophy.
Of the top 100 schools, with vaccine exemption rates ranging from 82% to 7%, private schools are clearly overrepresented. Half are private; 24 are religious and 26 are not. The average rate of exemption is virtually the same for public (15%) and religious (14%) schools. Thus, there is no evidence that religious affiliation or practice is a relevant factor in determining the rate of exemption from State-mandated vaccination in Los Angeles County.
WHERE ARE VACCINATION EXEMPTIONS MOST PREVALENT?
Private nonreligious schools have the highest rates of exemption on average: 26%. This includes four Waldorf schools (average exemption rate: 64%), nine with other politically “progressive” educational philosophies (average exemption rate: 29%), and three Montessori schools (average exemption rate: 16%). The average exemption rate for private schools whose philosophy cannot be easily discerned is 12% — three percentage points below the average for public and private religious schools.
Thus, there is strong empirical evidence that opposition to vaccination is highest among parents who send their children to politically liberal (and typically expensive) private schools. This result contradicts the conventional opinions expressed by the Post’s secular and atheist commentators — that opposition to vaccination is associated with anti-scientific religious fundamentalism and political conservatism.
The data are also ironic because one of the hallmarks of the liberal private schools in the LA Times’ top 100 list is their often-stated commitment to educating the “whole” child and ensuring a nurturing environment that enhances health and safety. A school with a high rate of exemption from State-mandated childhood vaccines is an environment conducive to an outbreak of serious childhood disease.