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New film explores Vashon’s debate over vaccinations

This version of the story elaborates on and corrects information on March Twisdale's views, including the incorrect statement that she and her husband had not vaccinated their children; they are partially vaccinated.

Vashon is frequently in the spotlight for the high number of island families that do not fully vaccinate their children, and now the issue has come to the big screen in a documentary that will play on the island this weekend.

A discussion with the filmmaker and islanders featured in the film will follow the Sunday screening.

“Everybody’s Business,” a film by graduate student Laura Green, focuses not on the science of vaccines, but on how personal choices about whether to vaccinate affect individuals and their relationships with one another.

“I wanted to look at the debate itself and how it affected the community,” Green said. “I wanted to see how you can have this disagreement and still be a community.”

In the United States, the film notes, Washington has the highest number of people who choose not vaccinate their children, and in Washington, Vashon has one of the highest “opt-out” rates.

Green was working on her master’s degree at the film program at Stanford University and researching potential subjects for a documentary when she came across a story about Vashon’s vaccine situation, she said. The subject intrigued her, she said, because of her interest in the intersection of science and culture. Vashon’s island nature added to the subject’s allure, since such distinct boundaries can be important for both community and science reasons — and the debate was very much two-sided.

“Here’s this island where there are activists on both sides of the issue,” she said.

After reaching out to several islanders involved in the issue, she began filming in the fall of 2011 and finished in the spring of 2012. Over the course of several trips to the island, she filmed about 30 hours to create the finished product: a 20-minute documentary featuring several islanders, including a physician, a school nurse, an alternative school teacher, a bus driver who remembers a relative having polio and spending time in an iron lung when they were young and — at the heart of the film —  four mothers who span the spectrum of opinion about vaccines.

Dr. Brad Roter, one of those featured in the film, has worked in community health for more than 20 years. He agreed to participate, he said in a recent interview, because he finds the vaccine issue interesting from a scientific perspective, but more importantly he is fascinated by why people believe what they believe. Often, he said, people inherit and adopt their beliefs, but do not always question why they feel passionately about them.

“What I would love for people to consider on all sides of all issues is how did they come to their beliefs,” he said.

In the film, at seemingly opposing ends of the vaccine debate spectrum are Celina Yarkin and March Twisdale —  two women who have been juxtaposed in a variety of news stories about Vashon’s vaccination rates.

Yarkin, a mother of three, first began speaking out on her feelings about the importance of vaccines in 2010, when she created a large informational board to display at Chautauqua in hopes of starting an island conversation about the issue. In the film, she is shown placing an updated board at the school, and another is in the works, she said.

To Yarkin, the science behind the safety of vaccines is solid, and the choice to vaccinate or not goes beyond what is good for the individual to what is good for the community.

“Because we have the ability to protect others, it becomes an ethical and moral choice,” she says in the documentary.

Yarkin was hesitant to participate in the film, she said, but thinks the finished project is excellent. She called the documentary fair and said Green presented both sides in a way that has not been done before.

“I think she was successful,” she said.

Twisdale, a mother of two, has frequently spoken out about her concerns about vaccines and the importance of personal choice. She and her husband partially vaccinated their children, who received immunizations for polio, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria and tetanus.

Describing herself as a medical choice advocate, Twisdale said she believes it is important to recognize the complexity in medicine and the importance of people having accurate information and the opportunity to make decisions for themselves.

"We need choice," she said. "We need informed consent."

Like Yarkin, Twisdale praised the film, but said she felt no hesitation about participating.

“I don’t really have reservations about discussing the issue,” she said. “I think it deserves more conversation.”

She noted she is pleased with the result in part because of how it illuminates the issues.

“I’m glad it does not come across as pro or con thinking,” she said. “I am really glad it invites people and does not turn them off.”

Also in the film is Erica Assink, a mother of two. She and her husband chose to vaccinate their first daughter, she said in the film, but after the young girl developed severe allergies, Assink began researching vaccines, and they elected not to vaccinate their next child. They felt it was a personal decision at the time, she said, and did not consider herd immunity.  In the film, Assink recounts how a woman in her neighborhood recently had a baby and asked her to keep her younger daughter away for a few weeks because she was not vaccinated.

“That was quite interesting what that did to me,” she said in the film. “I’m like, really, why? What is wrong with my child?”

The film also highlights Heidi HansPetersen, whose daughter was born three months early and is still medically fragile. The child’s pediatrician stressed that she should not get sick for the first two years of her life and expressed worries about the child living on Vashon, where so many are not vaccinated. Public places are now off limits for the family.

Like the others who appeared in the film, Roter said he thought the filmmaker did a good job of showing the different sides of the debate, but he feels what has been missing on Vashon is genuine conversation about the issues.

“What we haven’t really done is have a lot of dialogue,” he said. “How do we move forward on the vaccine issue?”

Several people commented on how the cinematography was beautifully done, showing Vashon to be a jewel in the Northwest.

Beyond that, Yarkin believes the film’s local nature will be appealing to many.

“I think moms of young kids would be really interested in terms of getting a glimpse of seeing what other moms are thinking,” she said. “It’s about us.”

“Everybody’s Business” will be shown for free at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, June 2, at the Vashon Theatre. A conversation with the filmmaker and islanders in the film will follow.

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