More than 16,000 California children entered kindergarten this school year without vaccinations because of their parents’ personal beliefs, up 15 percent from the prior year and more than double the number from six years ago, according to new figures from the California Department of Public Health.
The numbers were released as California battles an outbreak of measles – a disease mostly eradicated in California following decades of mass vaccination – involving almost 50 people. Medical experts say waning vaccination rates are one cause of the outbreak.
“It’s very concerning to me and to those who work in vaccines,” said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a specialist in pediatric diseases at the University of California, San Diego. “The rates have been steadily going up.”
Many of those personally opposed to vaccinations contend they do more harm than good. The Canary Party, a prominent group that advocates letting parents choose whether to vaccinate their children, states on its website that “dozens of published research papers show that YES, vaccines and autism are linked.”
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“In the last 30 years, the childhood vaccine schedule has tripled – while the U.S. autism rate has skyrocketed,” says a video on the site narrated by actor Rob Schneider.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, citing studies on thousands of children, maintains that vaccines are safe and necessary. The World Health Organization says no credible evidence links vaccines and autism.
“Do vaccines cause autism? The answer is no,” Sawyer said. “Do they compromise the immune system? The answer is no.”
Parents in several rural and affluent counties choose not to vaccinate their children at a greater rate than parents in urban cores, state Department of Public Health figures show.
In Nevada County, for instance, 20 percent of parents filed personal-belief exemptions for kindergartners this school year, nearly seven times the statewide rate. Parents in El Dorado and Placer counties filed personal-belief exemptions at more than twice the statewide rate.
About 5.4 percent of parents of kindergartners in Sacramento County filed personal-belief exemptions this school year, a higher rate than any of the other 15 largest counties in California.
A new vaccination law that went into effect Jan. 1 requires parents to get a health care professional to sign a form saying they have been told about vaccines and diseases before they can claim a personal-belief exemption.
Experts are waiting to see if the law reverses the trend.
“It’s difficult to tell,” said Serena Clayton, executive director of the California School-Based Health Alliance, which advocates for health services in schools. “In some of the more affluent regions, there are some people who do have personal beliefs who have access to physicians and will get them to sign.”
Those who sign the forms because they don’t have access to health care or money to pay for it might be motivated by the law, Clayton said. Hundreds of school districts have programs offering immunization, she added.
Gov. Jerry Brown last year added a new exemption to the vaccination law for parents with religious beliefs that prohibit them from seeking medical advice. Some who argued for making a doctor’s visit mandatory fear that the exemption will undermine the law.
“It is an out for parents who just want to check a box,” said Catherine Flores Martin, director of the California Immunization Coalition.
The rise in personal-belief exemptions matters to everyone, not just those entering kindergarten without their shots, Sawyer said.
One of the new measles cases in San Diego, he said, is a baby just 5 months of age – not yet old enough to be vaccinated. “The baby – they just happened to be in the wrong waiting room at the wrong time,” he said.