'Sad reality': Handful of WA measles outbreak sites are in Russian-speaking communities

“I love my kid and I want him to live a long and healthy life,” Yuriy Stasyuk said. “The sad reality is for many (Russian) people nothing scientists say or do will ever help. It will take a couple of their children getting really sick, or even dying, before they will change their mind."(Photo: Yuriy Stasyuk)

LYNNWOOD, Wash. – Yuriy Stasyuk can’t imagine putting his 6-month-old baby Ares in harm’s way, especially when a deadly infection like measles is preventable.

“I love my kid and I want him to live a long and healthy life,” he said. “The sad reality for many Russian people is that nothing scientists can say or do will ever help. It will take a couple of their children getting really sick, or even dying, before they will change their mind."

At least eight outbreak sites in Clark County or Portland are, or have been, in Slavic churches or schools. In fact, Russian-speaking communities, according to a 2012 report – the last of its kind – have the lowest vaccination rates in Washington state.

The Department of Health (DOH) partnered with the Washington State Health Care Authority to better understand what is behind low immunization rates in Russian-speaking communities – a pattern that’s been consistent since 2008.

“Any medicine has potential risk and danger,” said a focus group participant, in the report. “My own life is one thing, but my child’s life is a completely different thing.”

Negative beliefs around vaccination centers around mistrust of health care, language and cultural barriers, and strong dissatisfaction with health care providers based on pressure, lack of information about vaccination, and disrespect.

“Many Slavic immigrants endured the harshness of the Soviet regime under a totalitarian government,” said Stasyuk, who is a senior data analyst with the Washington Health Alliance. “This has led to a lot of anti-government sentiment and a distrust of the academy, science, and public health, which were sponsored by the government.”

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“Also, there is a general lack of science and health education, which has led some Slavics to prefer conspiracy theories,” he added. “Humans are prone to exaggerate negative news – stories of medical malpractice or vaccine side effects are more memorable than the story of a million saved lives.”

The Soviet Union used coercive immunization campaigns to get its citizens to vaccinate and maintain a strong, healthy labor workforce, Washington State University history professor Steven L. Hoch cites in his research paper. When it fell apart, soviet society lost its rational and financial means to support these campaigns, entrusting that responsibility to parents, who were becoming conscious of their rights.

“As far as I know, in the USSR vaccination was mandatory, so everyone I knew was vaccinated,” said Stasyuk, who immigrated from the Ukraine when he was seven. “It was only when we came to America, acquired access to the internet with its plethora of opinions, and learned about the freedom to dissent that people came up with different opinions about vaccination.”

Back home in Russia, this deep-rooted distrust in authority has caused parents not to vaccinate their kids as a form of expression. In 2018, legislation was passed that required parents’ consent before any medical procedure, making it easier to oppose vaccination altogether.

Last year alone, there were over 23,000 measles cases in Ukrainian children and adults and over 1,000 cases in Russia, according to the World Health Organization.

Misinformation online is adding to low vaccination rates. Scientists at George Washington University in D.C. discovered several accounts – the same ones that belonged to Russian trolls who interfered in the U.S. election – skewing online debate about the safety of vaccines.

In Washington state, which boasts 26,000 Russian immigrants, the DOH report found that using personal social networks in faith communities to advocate for vaccines, offering community presentations on immunization, and providing Russian-language resources online, would help close the anti-vaccination gap.

“We try to make immunization education materials accessible to as many people in Washington as possible,” said Liz Coleman with the DOH. “We publish as many immunization materials as we can in the top four languages spoken in Washington, one of which is Russian.”

Measles fact sheet in Russian:

Since the outbreak, the DOH mobilized over a 100 of its own employees, staffing three separate locations in the DOH Campus in Tumwater, Lab Facility in Shoreline, and the Clark County Public Health Department to coordinate response efforts. They have also requested a team of Incident Command professionals from North Dakota and several other volunteers to support Clark County.

Measles fact sheet in Ukrainian:

As for Stasyuk, he’s making a difference in his own community.

“I've had three separate people reach out to me now, saying they are getting vaccinated as a result of reading some of my social media posts,” he said. “So, I'm becoming a little less cynical now...I think there is some hope. Plus, that might inspire others to follow their lead.”

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