The most dangerous school in Los Altos

By Felix Salmon
November 1, 2011
Matt Richtel wrote a long and glowing profile of the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, looking into the apparent irony that a Silicon Valley school is decidedly low-tech.

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A week or so ago, Matt Richtel wrote a long and glowing profile of the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, looking into the apparent irony that a Silicon Valley school is decidedly low-tech; he quoted one parent, Alan Eagle, a senior Google employee, as saying that “I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school”.

But there’s more to technological progress than iPads. And I wonder what Alan Eagle would say if he knew that fear of life-saving technology at the Waldorf School is exposing his children to a much-heightened risk of painful, untimely, and easily-preventable death.

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The first thing to say about this tragic chart is that both Los Altos city and Santa Clara county have extremely low immunization rates. The right level of immunization is 100%, and rates of 90% or 94% are very dangerous indeed.

But 23% is positively evil.

This is a very dangerous level of immunization–the level where herd immunity gets lost, disease reservoirs are established, and children emerge from their school to infect infants, immunocompromised adults, and people whose vaccinations didn’t take or have waned, with potentially fatal diseases.

No responsible parent would ever let their child attend a school with a 23% immunization rate. And indeed there’s a strong case to be made that public-health officials should simply refuse to allow any such school to open its doors unless and until that rate improves. I’ll be charitable here and assume that Richtel didn’t know this number when he wrote his piece — but still, the NYT owes its readers something of an apology here for leading them to believe that there might be something admirable about this sinkhole of highly-dangerous fear and ignorance.

By far the best book on this phenomenon is The Panic Virus, by Seth Mnookin; I can highly recommend it. He tells of how when public-health officials try to work out which areas are at highest risk of fatal outbreaks, one thing they do is look at a map of Whole Food stores — it’s the crunchy-granola college-educated liberals who are by far the worst offenders when it comes to putting their own children and everybody else’s at risk. And they love to eat up pseudoscientific claptrap about “immature thymus glands” when it’s published by outlets like the Huffington Post.

It’s a statistical certainty that children die, unnecessarily, when immunization rates fall. The Los Altos parents sending their kids to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula are at best misguided and at worst downright malign. No matter how skeptical they are of technology, school administrators have an overriding moral duty to do something about this. Now.

Update: I should have put this in the original post, sorry, but the chart comes from the Bay Citizen’s immunization pages, which show that “at Waldorf School Of The Peninsula, 72.73 % of kindergartners weren’t fully immunized in the 2010-11 school year due to their parents’ personal beliefs”. The data comes from the California Department of Health.

Update 2: A fascinating comments thread, which is worth reading, or at least skimming through. Thanks in particular to LaraR, who notes that kids can’t enroll in public schools in Santa Clara unless they’re immunized. Which seems to have had the unintended consequence that parents who don’t want to immunize their kids all end up sending their kids to the Waldorf School, with potentially disastrous consequences. There’s already a pertussis epidemic in the county.

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