Politics & Government

California anti-vaxxers push back from across political spectrum

Evelyn Meletlidis doesn’t give her son Tylenol to cool a fever. She keeps gluten out of his diet, scrutinizes the ingredients in his bath products and sticks to organic fruits and veggies when she stocks the kitchen of her Roseville home.

“We approach things differently, and a lot of people don’t understand that,” Meletlidis said. “But this is what we need to do to help him.”

Her approach in caring for her 9-year-old son, who has allergies and autism, also includes eschewing the predominant medical advice that children should be vaccinated against measles, whooping cough and a host of other communicable diseases. Meletlidis stopped vaccinating her son when he was 3, saying he suffered too many side effects from the early shots. Instead, she said she seeks out naturopathic remedies to boost his immune system.

So the thought that California lawmakers could severely limit parents’ ability to decline vaccinations for their children has Meletlidis lighting up in opposition. Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan announced plans last week to carry a bill that would require more school kids to be vaccinated by eliminating the so-called “personal belief exemption” that has allowed thousands of parents to opt out. In the week since, Meletlidis has been calling legislators, posting messages on Facebook and reconsidering her political affiliation.

“I’m a registered Democrat, but that could possibly change,” she said. “I’m soul-searching for where I belong, because I don’t belong here. I could never be with a party that mandates, and takes away freedoms from people.”

As a measles outbreak that started at Disneyland spreads through California and beyond, vaccinations have emerged as a politically unpredictable issue. While most parents follow doctors’ vaccination recommendations, those who opt out are clustered in vastly different political climates. In California, the highest opt-out rates are in ultra-liberal coastal communities such as Santa Monica and Marin County, as well as conservative foothill regions where Republicans outnumber Democrats.

Opposition to Pan’s bill is coming from such disparate corners of the political spectrum, where both camps worry that the measure will curtail parental freedom and personal choice.

A national survey this month by the Pew Research Center found that attitudes about vaccines don’t fall neatly along party lines. It reported virtually no partisan differences on the issue, with 89 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Democrats saying vaccines are safe for healthy children.

Overall, the survey found that 9 percent of Americans think vaccines are unsafe.

“Some are skeptical about the effectiveness of vaccines, while others question why healthy children should be given the vaccines. Still others say they distrust pharmaceutical companies,” the Pew report says.

Those fears are laid out in a handmade pamphlet that Kathy Palmer said she distributes when she encounters pregnant women or mothers with young children at the grocery store or the mall. Palmer, who lives in Granite Bay, said she became an anti-vaccine advocate because she believes her grandchildren, who are now teenagers, were harmed by their immunizations as babies. She blames their autism, speech delays and allergies on the shots.

“If only we would have known that you can’t unvaccinate. The side effects are for life,” says Palmer’s pink one-page brochure.

The brochure includes a host of claims that are at odds with mainstream science, as well as a list of websites, films and books that promote the idea that vaccines are linked to autism and other disorders. Numerous scientific studies have disproved any link between vaccines and autism, but some parents either are unaware of the science or remain skeptical.

Mainstream medical opinion is unequivocal that vaccines are safe for the vast majority of the population. Some vaccines can, in rare cases, cause serious side effects, including allergic reactions and seizures, but leading medical groups have concluded that the benefits of vaccines far outweigh their risks and that they are the best way to protect the public from potentially deadly diseases.

“This is like talking to a creationist about evolution. They reach their conclusion, and then they find some little scrap of evidence to go along with it,” said Dr. Luther Cobb, president of the California Medical Association, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s doctors. “There is no legitimate debate on the subject.”

Cobb equated the risks from vaccines to the risks of crossing the street, and said vaccines have “saved more lives than any other invention ever invented.” But their effectiveness at keeping disease at bay depends on a large portion of the population being vaccinated. When too many people opt out, Cobb said, diseases like the measles start to spread.

Vaccination, he said, is “something we do for the well-being of the community at large that is of minimal risk and has significant benefits.”

While many of the anti-vaccine arguments are based on myths and misinformation, there is evidence that vaccines are not perfect.

In Elk Grove, for example, a high rate of schoolchildren are vaccinated, yet whooping cough ripped through the Sacramento suburb last year, an analysis by The Sacramento Bee found. Doctors said the reason is that the whooping cough vaccine now in use is often wearing off after two to three years. An older whooping cough vaccine worked better but is no longer used because, in a very small percentage of children, it caused extreme reactions, including high fever and seizures.

The measles vaccine is considered more effective and long-lasting than the whooping cough shot. Dr. Gil Chavez, head epidemiologist at the California Department of Public Health, said that one dose of the measles vaccine gives 95 percent immunity, while two shots boost immunity to 99 percent.

Yet in the measles outbreak that started in December at Disneyland, a portion of those getting sick had been vaccinated.

As of Wednesday, 110 cases of measles were confirmed in California. Of those, officials have vaccination history on 60 people. Most of them – 78 percent – were not vaccinated against the illness, according to the state Department of Public Health. But that means 13 Californians who are sick with measles had been given at least one shot of the vaccine.

“Even with two doses of MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, approximately 1 percent of people will remain susceptible to measles, and with only one dose approximately 5 percent will remain susceptible (which is the reason for the two-dose recommendation),” Chavez wrote in an email.

“It appears that some vaccinated people have a less severe case of measles because they may have some immunity. If vaccinated people develop measles they may be less infectious than other measles cases, but fully vaccinated people have transmitted measles to others.”

People who were vaccinated against the measles between 1963 and 1967 may have received an ineffective version of the vaccine, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials recommend that people vaccinated during that period get a new measles shot.

People who believe they’ve been injured by a vaccine cannot sue the manufacturer directly. Instead, they must go through a special court the federal government established in the 1980s to settle their claims. A 75-cent tax on each vaccine goes into a trust fund that pays for the settlements.

Last year, the trust fund paid out more than $202 million to people who claimed they or their children were injured or killed by a vaccine covered by the program. A government table lists the kinds of injuries for which people can seek compensation: anaphylactic shock, brain disorders, paralysis, chronic arthritis.

The possibility – remote as it may be – of adverse reactions fuels the opposition to mandatory immunizations. Meletlidis, the Roseville mom, said she doesn’t push her medical choices on other people and wants the same freedom to call her own shots. Palmer, the Granite Bay woman who passes out anti-vax pamphlets, said Pan’s bill to require more kids to get vaccines amounts to “medical tyranny.”

She’s a Republican, and said she expects the legislators from her party will oppose the bill but be outnumbered by Democrats who favor it.

That’s what happened the last time the California Legislature debated the childhood vaccine issue in 2012. That year, Pan carried a bill that required parents to consult with a doctor who counseled them about the risks and benefits of vaccines before they could opt out by citing personal beliefs.

Opposition to that measure came from both ends of the political spectrum, with former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Rob Schneider – a Democrat – joining then-Assemblyman Tim Donnelly – a Republican – on the Capitol steps for what they called a “Bipartisan Medical Choice Freedom Rally.”

When the votes came down, only a small handful of Democrats joined Republican legislators in voting against the measure, which passed.

Schneider said this week that he doesn’t have a position yet on the new bill, but he has begun talking to legislators about his skepticism about vaccines.

The current measles outbreak may shift the dynamic in the Legislature, said Republican Senate leader Bob Huff. He voted against Pan’s bill in 2012, but said he’s more open to vaccine mandates now.

“Times were different,” Huff said. “We’ve had a historic position of erring on the side of parents, I would say. And yet with measles outbreaks ... it leads to a perspective that maybe we need to revisit that.”

Sen. Ted Gaines of Roseville is another Republican who voted against Pan’s vaccine bill in 2012. He said he hasn’t decided how he’ll vote on the measure this year, but that he thinks it’s important that parents can opt out of vaccines for religious reasons.

“I have had calls coming in from my constituents, folks that are in opposition and have concern about the government being involved in that decision-making process,” Gaines said. “I’m very concerned, though, about an expanded outbreak of measles. So I’m taking a close look at the bill.”

Pan said the fight three years ago largely pitted doctors and public health professionals on one side and vaccine opponents on the other, or as he put it: “the experts vs. the people who didn’t trust them.”

Now, Pan said, more ordinary Californians are engaged on the side of wanting mandatory vaccinations.

“We’re getting calls from parents who are saying, ‘I want my family protected. I don’t want my kids ... to get measles,’” Pan said.

Babies under 1 year old can’t get the measles vaccine, nor can children undergoing treatment for cancer and other serious illnesses. Those populations are vulnerable to catching measles as it spreads in California. Mothers holding babies surrounded Pan and spoke in favor of his bill when he announced it. And last week, he traveled to Marin County to speak at a school board meeting where a father whose son is recovering from leukemia has made mandatory vaccinations his cause célèbre.

Californians like those parents, Pan said, “are standing up now and saying this situation is not acceptable, that our children are going to be at risk because people aren’t getting vaccinated. That is the big shift you’re seeing.”

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.

Recommended vaccine schedule

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a series of vaccinations from birth through adulthood. The current schedule:

Birth: Hepatitis B (Dose 1)

1-2 months: Hepatitis B (Dose 2)

2 months: Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTaP - Dose 1) | Hib (Haemophilus Influenzae - Dose 1) | Polio (Dose 1) | Pneumococcal conjugate (Dose 1) | Rotavirus (Dose 1)

4 months: Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTaP - Dose 2) | Hib (Haemophilus Influenzae - Dose 2) | Polio (Dose 2) | Pneumococcal conjugate (Dose 2) | Rotavirus (Dose 2)

6 months: Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTaP - Dose 3) | Hib (Haemophilus Influenzae - Dose 3) | Pneumococcal conjugate (Dose 3)

6 to 18 months: Hepatitis B (Dose 3) | Polio (Dose 3)

12 to 15 months: Hib (Haemophilus Influenzae - Dose 4) | Pneumococcal conjugate (Dose 4) | Measles, Mumps, Rubella (Dose 1) | Chickenpox (Dose 1)

12 to 23 months: Hepatitis A (Dose 1)

15 to 18 months: Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTaP - Dose 4)

18 to 29 months: Hepatitis A (Dose 2)

4 to 6 years: Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTaP - Dose 5) | Polio (Dose 4) | MMR (Dose 2) | Chickenpox (Dose 2)

11 to 12 years: Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (booster) | Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (1 Dose) | HPV (3 doses)

16 to 18 years: Meningococcal conjugate (Dose 2)

18 to 65 years: Tetanus, Diphtheria booster every 10 years; Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTaP) booster once

60 years: Shingles (zoster)

65 years: Pneumococcal

6 months to death: Flu vaccine, annually

Source: Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Note: The CDC recommends that adults who never received vaccinations for certain illnesses – for example, if a vaccine wasn’t available when they were growing up – get vaccinated now. A full schedule of adult recommendations is here: www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/easy-to-read/adult.html