More California kindergartners are getting their vaccinations before starting school, curbing a decadelong trend of falling immunization rates, new state figures show.
The shift comes as California experiences one of its worst whooping-cough outbreaks in generations. Health experts said several prior years of lax immunization primed the state for such an outbreak.
This year’s rise in vaccination rates corresponds to the introduction of a new “personal belief” form that must be completed by parents who don’t want to immunize their children. The result of a new state law, the form must be signed by a doctor who acknowledges telling parents about the risks and benefits of vaccinations; alternatively, parents can state that visiting a doctor violates their religious beliefs. The new form replaces a document that did not require a doctor’s signature.
For decades, the state has required a number of vaccinations before children can enter public school. That list now includes measles, mumps, polio and a host of other potentially devastating illnesses. Parents have long had the option of opting out based on personal beliefs.
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About 13,260 parents statewide filed “personal belief” forms exempting their kindergarten children from vaccinations this school year, a drop of 20 percent from 2013-14, according to the California Department of Public Health. That translates to about 2.5 percent of kindergartners opting out of vaccines, down from 3.1 percent the prior year.
It was the first drop in at least a decade. From the 2007-08 school year to 2013-14, the number of personal-belief exemptions more than doubled. The trend was largely attributed to fears among parents that vaccines could cause autism.
The hypothesis – fanned by a British researcher whose work has since been discredited – has been discounted in a series of rigorous studies. Research has shown that vaccines can, in rare cases, cause serious side effects, including life-threatening allergic reactions and seizures. But leading medical groups, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have concluded that the benefits of vaccines outweigh their risks.
State Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who introduced the bill requiring a doctor’s signature on the exemption form, celebrated the rise in vaccination rates. “It matters because we need to keep our children safe at school and keep our children safe in our community,” said Pan, a pediatrician.
California’s vaccination rates have become a national topic in recent years, largely due to the spread of whooping cough, or pertussis, one of the diseases on the required-vaccination list for state public schools.
Pertussis is distinctive for the symptomatic violent coughing that makes it hard to catch one’s breath. The disease typically affects infants and young children and, in babies younger than 1 year, can worsen quickly and be fatal. Coughing spells can last for 10 weeks.
About 10,000 cases of whooping cough have been reported in California in 2014, including 200 involving infants. Three babies have died from the disease this year. A 2010 outbreak affected 9,200 people.
Areas with low vaccination rates generally have higher rates of pertussis, said Dr. Dean A. Blumberg, an infectious-disease expert at UC Davis Health System. “The state has done studies with this – they were able to show where there was clustering, there were outbreaks,” he said.
Both children who don’t get vaccinated and those who do are at higher risk when immunization rates are low, Blumberg said. No vaccine is 100 percent effective, and some children who received a shot are likely catching whooping cough from those who did not, he said. Particularly vulnerable are infants who have not had the vaccine and the elderly whose immunity may have worn off.
The lowest vaccination rates tend to be in rural and wealthy parts of Northern California, including Placer, El Dorado and Nevada counties.
Placer County, with a vaccination opt-out rate three times the statewide average, did not see a decline in personal-belief exemptions this year. Neither did Nevada County, which has the highest opt-out rate in California: 21 percent, or eight times the statewide average.
But they were the outliers. Overall, 46 of California’s 58 counties saw fewer personal-belief exemptions this year than last, including Sacramento County, where the number of exemptions fell by 15 percent.
“It’s common sense,” said Jason Brown, a Sacramento resident, explaining why he vaccinated his daughter Hailey, a kindergartner. “I had them growing up. It’s just what we do.”
Itati Martin, a Sacramento resident who also has a child in kindergarten, said she had heard rumors that vaccines could cause health problems, but decided “the data is not there to support what they believe in.”
Others remain skeptical. Sacramento resident Erika Zeiter had her kindergartner vaccinated – and has lingering doubts. The number of shots – the series can involve 20 over time – concerned her and created a painful experience for her daughter. Her child vomited after one vaccination, and was ill for several days. She’s not sure if the timing was a coincidence.
If she had to make the decision again, Zeiter said, she would order certain vaccines “but I wouldn’t do all of them.”
Dr. Lynn Bagge, a pediatrician and assistant physician-in-chief for Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento and Roseville, said she often hears similar concerns. She tells parents that there can be side effects from vaccines but an illness like the one Zeiter described is “very uncommon.” She echoed the CDC in saying the rewards outweigh the risk.
“I have children myself,” said Kate McAuley, Sacramento County’s senior health program coordinator for immunizations and communicable diseases. “That was a very uncomfortable time, but compared to the disease itself, which can be life-threatening, it’s far less to go through a number of hours of discomfort compared to a lifetime of other issues.”
Call The Bee’s Phillip Reese, (916) 321-1137.