Chickenpox outbreak at anti-vaxxer-tolerant Melbourne school.

School That Is Tolerant of Anti-Vaxxers Suffers Massive Chickenpox Outbreak

School That Is Tolerant of Anti-Vaxxers Suffers Massive Chickenpox Outbreak

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Dec. 10 2015 12:38 PM

Surprise: School That Is Tolerant of Anti-Vaxxers Suffers Massive Chickenpox Outbreak

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A quarter of students at a Brunswick school have been itchily indisposed.

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Tolerance of racial and cultural diversity is good. Tolerance of those who endanger the community by refusing to vaccinate their kids is not. An Australian primary school just learned that the hard way: A bout of chickenpox has swept Brunswick North West Primary School in Melbourne, infecting at least 80 of the school’s 320 students within the past two weeks, reports The Age.

Well, what did they expect? In a recent newsletter to parents, the school’s pincipal Trevor Bowen* directly tells parents that they should tolerate the vaccine dodgers among them. And there are a lot of them to tolerate: Just 73.2 percent of students at the school had been immunized, compared to 92 percent within that postcode district and 90.4 percent in all of Victoria, Bowen reported in May.

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From the Principal’s Message:

We expect all community members to act respectfully and with tolerance when interacting with other parents and carers who may have a differing opinion to their own. This includes an opposing understanding about child immunisation.

People from both sides of the discussion have expressed their thoughts in terms of the wellbeing and ongoing health of the children they care so much for. This is most admirable. I ask all community members to interact respectfully at all times and with a sense of tolerance and acceptance of diversity.

Those words may sound “respectful” and “admirable”—until 25 percent of your school is rendered itching, scratching, and out of commission. Health officials in Australia are rightly concerned about the possibility of this happening elsewhere as vaccination rates plateau. As Health Minister Jill Hennessy put it: "The science on this issue is really clear. Vaccinations save lives.” "Get your advice from a doctor, not from some quack who's opposed to vaccination based on dodgy science," she added to The Age.

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In January, Australia’s “No Jab, No Play” policy is set to take effect, which will prevent unvaccinated pre-schoolers from attending child care or kindergarten. It's part of the country's $19 million effort to boost immunization rates, which has included making it mandatory for parents to vaccinate their children in order to get childcare tax benefits and rebates. The new policy, however, does not apply to primary or high schools. In schools like Brunswick, parents have to report their kids’ immunization status, but no kid can be barred from enrolling for not having been immunized.

“While vaccination rates in Australia have increased ... vaccine objection rates for children under the age of seven have also increased steadily, especially under the conscientious objector category,” wrote former Prime Minister Tony Abbott* in a statement in the Sunday Telegraph introducing the effort earlier this year. “More than 39,000 children aged under seven are not vaccinated because their parents are vaccine objectors. This is an increase of more than 24,000 children over 10 years.” 

So how are parents reacting to the Brunswick outbreak? At least some appear to be unperturbed: “Given that he was only out of school for a week, it’s just one of these things that happens,” one parent tells 7 News Australia with a shrug.

The problem is, that isn’t true. Out-of-control epidemics of chickenpox that tear through schools aren’t just an inevitable occurrence, like the annual coming of winter or Donald Trump saying something awful on national television. They’re preventable through the simple act of vaccination. When you extend an attitude of “tolerance” to parents who are against vaccinating their kids, you endanger the whole community.

Correction, Dec. 11, 2015: This post originally misidentified Trevor Bowen as president of the Brunswick school. It also misidentified former prime minister Tony Abbott as still in office.

Rachel E. Gross is the science web editor at Smithsonian.