In the coming weeks, as summer vacation gives way to school, more than a half million children across California will take their seats in kindergarten classrooms for the first time.
In past years, about 35,000 began the school year without the benefit of vaccines that guard themselves and their classmates against deadly communicable diseases. But this school year will be different, and for many parents, it offers hope for safer schools.
Last year, after an outbreak of measles at Disneyland that sickened more than a hundred people across our state and country, I and state Sen. Ben Allen authored Senate Bill 277, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.
This August marks the first school year that children starting school must have required vaccines unless they have a medical exemption from a physician. The number of children without the required vaccines at school enrollment had skyrocketed by 337 percent since 2000, raising the risk of outbreaks of preventable serious diseases such as measles.
The new law is already having an impact. Thanks to greater public awareness, the rate of unvaccinated children in our state is already changing for the better. The vaccination rate for kindergartners was up 2.5 percentage points over 2014. And with implementation of the new law, it is my hope and expectation that the immunization rate will climb even higher over the next several years to re-establish the community immunity California previously enjoyed.
For so many parents and communities, an increase could not come soon enough. Recently, two babies, one in Stockton and the other in San Diego, died of whooping cough.
There are also children with cancer, transplants or other conditions forced to miss school because their immune systems are unable to fight off disease or to be protected by vaccines; they simply can’t risk being in a classroom with an unvaccinated schoolmate who exposes students to measles, chicken pox or other contagious diseases.
As SB 277 was going through the legislative process, I was fortunate to partner with many extraordinary parents to pass the bill. April Downs is one of them. She has a 5-year-old son who suffers from a rare white blood cell disease. They live in a California community with low vaccination rates.
April is determined to give her son a good education, but finding a safe school for him to attend has been almost impossible, and he often has to switch classrooms and schools, in search of one with a vaccination rate high enough to keep him safe. “What does vaccination mean to me?” April said, “Vaccination is life.”
But even as parents look forward to the implementation of SB 277, we are aware that opponents are looking for ways to evade the law. Charter schools are being reorganized as “homeschool co-ops.” Some unscrupulous physicians are abusing their licensing privileges to market medical exemptions for parents willing to pay to enroll their children in school without required vaccines, undermining children’s health and school safety for profit.
However, Californians want to live in communities free of preventable diseases and to have safe schools. I continue to work with parents on effective implementation of SB 277 throughout the state and, if necessary, will support further legislation needed to restore community immunity in our state.
As a pediatrician, I witnessed firsthand the dangers of vaccine-preventable diseases, and as a state senator, I am working to prevent these diseases from returning to sicken people in our community and state.
As we head into another school year, I hope parents choose to restore our community immunity by getting their children vaccinated, so that April, and every California mother and family, can feel confident that children will be safe and healthy attending school.
State Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, represents the state’s 6th Senate District. Contact him at Senator.Pan@senate.ca.gov.