Idaho's Epidemic of Fear: Vaccination Liberation Movement Takes a Shot at Public Health 

The war over vaccinations heats up in North Idaho

Some contend that there are two Idahos. Divided by rivers, mountains and even a time zone, North Idaho has a new and possibly more potent distinction from its southern half--fear.

An increasing number of Idahoans living north of the 45th Parallel are afraid of vaccinations. For whatever reason--and there are quite a few--more Panhandle parents are opting not to vaccinate their children against diphtheria, hepatitis, measles, mumps, pertussis, polio, rubella and/or tetanus. Analysts are hard pressed to stereotype exemption seekers. They include the college educated and high-school dropouts, six-figure-salaried professionals and families requiring government assistance, uber-conservatives and left-wing progressives--all with a common fear of the needle.

But the fear of vaccinations in the north is matched only by the fear of the lack of vaccinations in the south--in particular, at the Boise office of the Department of Health and Welfare. That's where the state's top health officials have been pouring over the latest statistics on Idaho's vaccination exemptions, and they don't like what they see.

In fact, the contrasting fears may be best represented by two very different women. One, in the north, is a heart-on-her-sleeve rabblerouser who takes on everyone "from the governor on down" in her fight against vaccines. The other, in the south, may be Idaho's most authoritative voice on disease, yet she has no desire to engage in a heated debate over vaccinations.

Ingri Cassel

When Ingri Cassel walked into the Common Knowledge Tea House, a cozy used-book store doubling as a tea room tucked into a Sandpoint neighborhood, both arms were filled with anti-vaccination literature. She is usually poised to convince anyone who will listen that vaccinations are an ultimate evil. But between her promotions of alternative medicine and diatribes against the government, it quickly becomes clear that Cassel's motivations are quite personal. Within seconds of beginning our conversation, Cassel said she needed to "make one thing clear."

"First of all," Cassel said, her finger punctuating the air with each word. "I need to correct you. You need to stop using the word immunization. We don't say immunization. Vaccines don't immunize anything."

The tone had been set.

"I started doing this work because I'm not vaccine free," said Cassel. "There was a car accident when I was 3 or 4, and I ended up in an emergency room. They gave me a tetanus shot. That was the first assault."

Cassel is a second-generation crusader. Her mother, Walene James, is the author of several books, including 1988's Immunization: The Reality Behind the Myth, based, Cassel said, on her sister's court battle in Virginia, where she was accused of child neglect for not having her son vaccinated.

Cassel is the president of a group called Vaccination Liberation, which trumpets on its website such topics as: "Why Doctors are Idiots," "Vaccines Exposed: A Hidden Crime Against Children," and "Doctors Are the Third Leading Cause of Death." Cassel insisted that her group was not registered as a business or nonprofit in spite of the fact that it collects membership dues ($30) and sells products (books, DVDs and CDs).

"We don't register and we won't," said Cassel. "But I have over 500 members that have paid dues over the years."

Without divulging membership, Cassel said she has a few political allies, too, including State Sen. Shawn Keough.

"That's not exactly accurate," Keough told BW. "I support vaccines."

But the eight-term District 1 senator said she agreed with Cassel in objecting to the exemption form used by parents to opt their children out of vaccinations.

"I would never sign that form the way it's written now," said Keough, who expects to bring up the controversial issue in the 2012 legislative session.

"We have quite a bit of political support up here," Cassel said. "But we don't have support from down south. They just wallow in ignorance."

"Down south" would include the Governor's Office. In an email to BW, Cassel referred to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter as "Butcher."

"When I called the Governor's Office regarding the vaccination exemption form, they basically told me that I'm going to get in trouble if I keep telling people how to fill it out," she said.

Cassel's organization publishes a how-to guide to alter the document. By crossing out or inserting key words, the form is dramatically altered.

For example, the document includes the following:

"I know that failure to follow the recommendations about vaccination may endanger the health or life of my child and others ..."

Cassel recommends parents alter the document to:

"I know that failure to following the recommendations about vaccination may endanger the health or life of my child and others ..."

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