It wasn't Alison Dodge's intention to stir up controversy last week when she posted a blog entry asking customers not to bring unvaccinated children to her store in the event of a measles outbreak in the Madison area.
Dodge is a co-owner of Happy Bambino, a specialty store and resource center located at 4116 Monona Drive that sells eco-friendly baby items and hosts a variety of parent-child classes and social groups.
Classroom space at Happy Bambino is shared by older children and babies, including children who are too young to receive the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Responding to calls last week from parents concerned about a potential measles outbreak, Dodge consulted with a local physician and drafted what she says is a sensible policy to protect Happy Bambino's youngest, most vulnerable community members from the potentially deadly disease.
"I figured some people would probably be upset about it," Dodge says. "But I'm more concerned about babies getting measles than I am about losing customers."
The Facebook post received immediate attention, racking up hundreds of likes and dozens of shares and comments. Many were positive, with customers applauding Happy Bambino's new policy. Some, however, felt that the stance was discriminatory toward parents who choose not to vaccinate.
"It was not our intention to judge people on their parenting decisions," Dodge says. "But regardless of our stance, if there's a measles outbreak in Madison, people will be concerned about taking their babies anywhere. I know I would be."
Measles outbreaks have been inching closer to Wisconsin in recent weeks, with confirmed cases in Illinois and possible cases in Portage County. The Wisconsin State Journal reported high rates of unvaccinated children at some Madison schools, particularly on the city's near east side.
Seth Mnookin, a journalist who explored the anti-vaccination movement in his book The Panic Virus, has observed that anti-vaxxers are perceived to be the liberal, affluent, Prius-driving, Whole Foods-shopping demographic.
Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics, says vaccine skepticism is one of the rare issues where the far right and the far left overlap in ideology. On the left, it's a distrust of corporations and the pharmaceutical industry; on the right it's an aversion to government or possibly a religious conviction.
"In the United States, we tend to have clusters of unvaccinated children," Charo says. The clustering occurs in neighborhoods where residents discuss and share similar viewpoints.
"That creates a local area of high danger," Charo says. "As soon as the illness enters that little cluster community, it can rip right through the area very quickly."
Charo says Happy Bambino's policy is both "reasonable and responsible" -- particularly because the business is unique in that it serves a large number of children too young to be vaccinated. Other businesses that serve a wide age range can depend on "herd immunity" to protect unvaccinated or immunocompromised individuals. Since the majority of people are vaccinated, they provide "circles of protection" that prevent the disease from being transmitted from a sick child to an unvaccinated child.
"Every time you get vaccinated, you're protecting everyone," Charo says. "That's being part of a community, that's part of our collective obligation to each other."