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Keep Your Whooping Cough to Yourself

Keep Your Whooping Cough to Yourself

By Fiona Zublin

SourceRuss Widstrand/Getty


We think sharing is usually caring but draw a cold, hard line at disease.

By Fiona Zublin

I knew what was coming when my California Airbnb host started talking about the measles. With knowing winks and the phrase “Big Pharma,” she signaled her conviction that the outbreak was overly hyped by the newspapers, which she said she doesn’t read. Then, sitting in her beautiful garden and pulling weeds with her bare hands, she dropped the bomb: Her son, a seventh-grader in a Waldorf school who also lives in the house where I’m renting a room during my two-week trip, isn’t vaccinated.

“Some things should come with a warning label,” I thought, as she spoke of not being afraid of “childhood diseases” and I contemplated the fact that my otherwise-healthy great-grandfather died of measles in his 40s. But seriously: Why don’t they come with a warning label?       

As the sharing economy infiltrates more facets of our lives — Airbnb, Lyft, Poshmark — we’ve gotten used to sharing space with other people, people who may not have been vetted by any system. The first worry is that they’re murderers; but while murderers have no incentive to identify themselves (“This is the bloody ax room,” they’d say, showing you around your new digs), the anti-vaxx crowd is more than happy to. So why is there no badge on sites like Airbnb to indicate whether your host has had their shots, the same way they’ll tell you if they have a cat or a dog?

It’s vaccination en masse, aka herd immunity, that safeguards against disease.

Airbnb, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, is reputedly rather laissez-faire about things like bedbugs that one can pick up in the homes advertised on the site. It provides built-in secondary insurance for hosts — in case someone starts a meth lab in your apartment, which has happened! — but not for guests; its terms of service indicate that bookings are at one’s own risk. So if you can’t afford a booster shot, or can’t be vaccinated yourself, you may have to broach the awkward subject with potential hosts yourself. Or take your life in your hands every time you stay with strangers. 

Then just get vaccinated yourself, is the rebuttal of the anti-vaxx crowd. Unfortunately, not everyone can be vaccinated — some people are allergic or have illnesses that make vaccination impossible. Besides, self-vaccination isn’t enough, says Daniel Salmon, deputy director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University. He says that vaccines offer anywhere from 50 percent to 95 percent protection from a disease (flu and whooping cough are the worst), and that it’s vaccination en masse, aka herd immunity, that safeguards against disease. I know this. I’ve already had whooping cough — I got it from an unvaccinated child and spent six months coughing before my doctor figured out what was going on — but even my past doesn’t offer lifelong protection against pertussis.


There is no herd immunity in Silicon Valley, it seems. According to California Department of Public Health data, only 71.4 percent of seventh-graders at this particular Waldorf school have had their Tdap vaccine, which protects against whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus — that’s way below the required level for herd immunity, which varies by disease. For measles, it’s above 90 percent — and only 36.1 percent of kindergartners at Mountain View’s Waldorf school have had their MMR vaccine, which makes it a prime environment for outbreaks.

So Airbnb should just eliminate the uncertainty and give hosts a box to check saying “This is a vaccinated household.” If someone doesn’t want to vaccinate their kids, we travelers should at least be warned before sharing kitchens with them. California’s last pertussis epidemic, which affected more than 12,000 people, is winding down — but not before it killed four infants too young to be vaccinated. I guess they are just childhood diseases.

Go ahead — hit us with your best shot. 

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