They’d move out of state, the anti-vaccine parents warned California legislators. They’d home-school their kids. One thing they’d never do: Give in to the supposed horrors of vaccination.
Well, maybe they went ahead and put down roots elsewhere. And that’s fine, except for the schools where they moved. Because the newest figures from the state show that the vaccination rates for kindergartners at California schools have never been higher. And if the only way to do that was by people leaving the state or teaching at home, it’s worth it to have schools where children are now far less likely to catch measles, or take whooping cough home to a vulnerable baby sibling.
The thing is that despite all the hype about the world being divided into vaxxers and anti-vaxxers, it was always a little more complicated than that. There are also the parents in between, who have no big beef with vaccines, but also feel no sense of urgency about them. Maybe they heard some of the nonsense that continues to be spewed about vaccination and weren’t certain, so they didn’t act either way.
And Senate Bill 277, authored by state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, despite all the insults thrown at him and the threats of recall, appears to have swayed those less-committed parents, as public health officials always expected it to. The number of kindergartners who have been vaccinated under the law, which eliminated all exemptions except those for children with physical ailments that make vaccines dangerous to them, has risen to 96 percent, from 93 percent the year before.
And it was more than 5 percentage points higher than two years before, when the Disneyland measles outbreak suddenly woke up the public to the fact that measles was not an extinct disease like smallpox. The state also had implemented another law, now moot, that required parents to get a little education from a health care provider before they claimed an exemption.
This is big, enough of a difference to move schools back into the safety zone of “herd immunity,” in which the children who can’t be vaccinated – or whose vaccines didn’t give them immunity, which happens in a small percentage of cases – are protected by the vast number of children with working vaccines.
Of course, this is only kindergartners. It will take several years for these numbers to reach older students. And the state will have to be vigilant about enforcement; before the new law, many parents didn’t bother with exemptions and schools did little about it.
The argument among many vaccine opponents – aside from the nonsense about vaccines causing autism, which so many studies have proven false that it’s like believing in vampires – is that parents have a right to make a choice for their children. That’s true up to a point, but not when they are making that choice for other people’s children as well. If all children could be vaccinated safely – those undergoing chemo treatments or taking immunosuppressive drugs can’t – and all children vaccinated were protected, they might have a better argument.
Look, no one can claim that vaccines are 100 percent safe and that no child will have a serious reaction. But they’re very safe. The chances of a driving accident during any given year in California are dozens of times higher than the chances of a serious reaction to the measles vaccine. In fact, a case of measles is much more likely to leave serious, permanent damage than the vaccine. There’s a reason why parents, doctors and the public wanted to prevent childhood diseases if they could, and it wasn’t just to save the parents the hassle of caring for a sick kid.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.