Mom of teen not vaccinated for measles fires back at critics

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By Bill Briggs

Inside the Renfro home, an unvaccinated but healthy teenager is serving a forced school exile while her mother is serving notice: She's done with the hate she's heard spouted all week in Orange County — a place not unfamiliar with backbiting. 

Of course, this is not reality TV. 

Michelle Renfro's 15-year-old daughter, Rebecca, is one of 24 Huntington Beach High School students barred from returning to school until Jan. 29 because a classmate has measles and those 24 were never immunized against the virus. 

School officials worry that children not vaccinated for measles could be at risk from exposure to the very contagious virus.

California certainly has pockets of parents who simply refuse to vaccinate their kids, a new study showed. But Michelle Renfro, 42, is not one of them. 

"I've seen the news. I've seen how angry some of the parents are with people who don’t get vaccinated, going so far as to say, 'This is all because of 24 sets of stupid parents,’" Renfro told TODAY in a telephone interview. "Well, I didn’t get a choice as to whether or not Rebecca got this shot. My only choice was: Do I want to risk my daughter’s safety? I’m not opposed to having her vaccinated, if I know she safely can have it."

"I’m not opposed to having her vaccinated, if I know she safely can have it," says Michelle Renfro about her daughter Rebecca, 15.Today

As a baby, Rebecca was immunized against all childhood diseases except measles. The reason: Her older brother, Zachary, had suffered a severe, allergic reaction when he got his first measles vaccination. After the injection, his throat closed, his mother said. Doctors later advised that Rebecca not receive the measles vaccine. 

That was never an issue until the current outbreak of more than 50 cases in California and three other states, all linked to Disneyland. Nearly 20 of the sick people are in Orange County and several are Disneyland workers, health officials said. The spread of the virus is being fueled, doctors say, by parents who haven't vaccinated their children. 

The Disneyland outbreak is not believed to be connected to the Huntington Beach illness. But all the buzz in that community is about the forced time off for Rebecca and her 23 non-immunized classmates. 

"[The media is] saying we basically chose not to get our kids vaccinated," said Renfro. "That may be true with 99 percent of the parents. But that is not true with my family."

"My son almost died. If I hadn’t been two minutes around the corner from the emergency room, he could have died. They had to put a tube in his throat as soon as we got there. So, do I want to put my daughter through that? Even if there was only a .99 percent chance of a similar reaction? I’m not going to do that."

Michelle isn't too pleased with Rebecca's school, either. The teen had studied for a spree of semester final exams, which are being held this week. She's not allowed to take them. Her grades have been "frozen," Renfro said. The spring semester begins next week and Rebecca won't be there. 

"As of now, the school has given us no information as to what they're supposed to be doing. They said, basically, they hadn’t figured it out yet. And they didn’t tell me anything at the school [about the quarantine]. They just said if I had questions, I should call the CDC. So I did. I didn’t know anything about the measles."

Doctors advised that Rebecca Renfro not to receive the measles vaccine.Today

When Renfro phoned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last Thursday, experts there told her Rebecca should avoid all public places for 21 days — a period when the virus could be incubating. In people with the serious yet preventable illness, symptoms include fever, dry cough, runny nose, watery eyes and a signature rash. People can spread the illness up to four days before the rash appears.

"She can go on a car ride, or have a friend over if the friend has been vaccinated. She’s pretty much home bound for 21 days," Renfro said. 

There are no restrictions on the rest of the family, which includes a 21-year-old brother who is fully immunized and Zachary, 19, whose lone immunization should protect him, doctors told his mother. 

Rebecca can undergo a skin-scratch test to check whether she is allergic to any elements within the measles vaccine. Because she may have been exposed to the virus at school, however, she must wait 30 days to have that test, the CDC told the family. Her mother plans to do just that. 

For now, though, the family huddles, waiting out the quarantine — and hoping that no other Huntington High students turn up with measles. 

"The school said if another student gets the measles, they will be extending (this medical suspension) for another 21 days from when that child showed the symptoms. So, who knows?" Renfro said. "She could be out of school for six months."