High school senior Madeline Scott was so excited when she received the acceptance text from UC Berkeley that she called her mother immediately.
“I got into UC Berkeley,” she gushed.
The euphoria didn’t last.
When her mother, Tammy Rae Scott, signed onto the Berkeley admissions website, she learned about an apparent University of California policy requiring that incoming students be vaccinated for measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis and meningitis. They also must undergo screening for tuberculosis.
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Madeline hasn’t had an immunization since age 3 when she had an adverse reaction to the MMR shot for measles, mumps and rubella, her mother said.
“If I chose to attend Berkeley, I would have to catch up on 17 years worth of vaccinations,” said Madeline Scott, who lives in Arcata. “I feel that Berkeley is infringing on my right to refuse medical procedures.”
While Berkeley is telling newly admitted students to get vaccinated, the UC system decided at the last minute to give one final reprieve to the freshman class entering this fall.
Last month, the UC system decided to delay its vaccination requirement for a year. Starting in fall 2018, entering UC freshmen will have to meet the requirement for the first time, system officials say.
“We are doing this for very important public health reasons – to protect the students on our campuses,” said Brad Buchman, UC director of Student Health and Counseling. “The reason: We continue to see cases of these illnesses every year.”
Between 2000 and 2012, the number of personal belief exemptions from vaccine requirements climbed in California schools as some parents feared that immunizations caused autism or other health concerns. Medical experts say such parents were relying on misinformation and that the country’s vaccine supply is safe and effective. State leaders in 2015 eliminated personal and relief exemptions from vaccine requirements for K-12 students.
Though the UC system will not block unvaccinated freshmen this fall, campuses are asking students to provide information about their immunization history. UC schools will send letters for the first time telling them to get vaccinated.
Most of the students coming to the University of California without the required immunizations are from other countries, some with limited access to vaccines, according the university. In 2016, the university system had 12,000 international students, or 14 percent of its enrollment.
Buchman said the decision to add the vaccination requirement came after pressure from state and county public health officials. The UC system has multiple cases of respiratory infectious disease every year, including meningitis, mumps, measles and chicken pox, he said.
“The medical literature is rife with examples that a single case can be rapidly transmitted to a lot of people in congregate housing,” he said.
In 2015, a UC Davis student was diagnosed with meningococcal disease, a type of meningitis that can be life threatening.
Meningitis outbreaks occurred in 2013-14 at Princeton University and UC Santa Barbara, spurring widespread student vaccinations. A student at Drexel University died from meningitis that school year after having close contact with students at Princeton.
Since last summer, California students must have vaccinations or a medical exemption when they enter kindergarten or seventh grade or transfer to a new school district. State leaders eliminated personal belief exemptions after the 2015 measles outbreak tied to Disneyland.
The state reported this month that school vaccination rates were the highest in more than 15 years at 95.6 percent of kindergartners in the current school year.
Some campus officials remain unaware that students have been granted a reprieve from immunizations for one more year. Tammy Rae Scott said she called Berkeley on Wednesday to confirm that her daughter could enroll this fall. She said she was told her daughter’s registration would be blocked if she failed to comply with the vaccine requirement.
“No holds will be placed on any student registrations this fall at Berkeley or any other UC campus,” Buchman said, when asked about the call. “This information has been communicated to the campuses and we will continue to do so.”
Just in case, the Scott family will continue to look for doctors to write an exemption for Madeline, whose adverse reaction to vaccines was never documented. Six, including their family doctor, have turned them down, according to Tammy Rae Scott.
“I’m in the process of trying to find a way around this as I do not believe vaccines are safe or effective,” she said.
Madeline Scott shares her mother’s views and wrote a 4,000-word paper on the topic in high school. Despite her opposition to vaccines, Madeline said she will get them if she must in order to attend Berkeley.
“She has worked so hard to get into a great school and, if we are unable to find a physician that will sign a medical exemption, she will unwillingly consent and receive 11 vaccines to gain entry,” Tammy Rae Scott said.
Fiona Grant’s children won’t be able to avoid vaccines if they enroll at an University of California campus. Her daughter Sally, 15, has her eye on Berkeley. The Eureka family said the vaccine requirement makes them “far less inclined” to look at UC campuses.
Fiona has no plans to have her daughter vaccinated, although she acknowledges that is up to Sally after she is 18. “Probably what would happen, even if we decide to apply, it would mean a medical exemption or not going to the UC system,” she said.
“This is going to push a lot of talented people out of the state and out of the UC system,” she said. “It really is a private matter.”