With measles breaking out in California 15 years after it was thought to be eradicated, two state senators introduced legislation Wednesday that would make it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their children.
The bill by Democratic Sens. Richard Pan of Sacramento and Ben Allen of Santa Monica is likely to spark intense debate in the state Legislature. Across the state, thousands of parents – largely concentrated in wealthy communities that lean both liberal and conservative – have chosen not to vaccinate their children. They’re able to enroll them in school by filling out a form known as a “personal-belief exemption” that says they are philosophically opposed to immunizations.
But as diseases such as whooping cough and measles re-emerge in California, some lawmakers say it’s time to tighten the state’s vaccination requirements. The new bill would eliminate parents’ ability to seek a personal-belief exemption. That means all children would have to be vaccinated to enroll in school unless they have a medical condition preventing it.
“We do not need to wait for a child to sicken or die before we act. And that’s what we’re doing here today,” Pan said during a Capitol press conference where he was surrounded by mothers holding babies in their arms.
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The mothers said they fear that the current measles outbreak that started at Disneyland is especially risky for their little ones, who are too young to get their first measles shot, which typically comes after the first birthday.
Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease – 99 cases had been confirmed in California as of Wednesday. Several moms said they’ve become wary of the potential for exposure during everyday experiences like taking their babies to the grocery store.
“It’s not just an issue of personal choice. This is an issue that effects the whole community,” said Amy Aliferi of West Sacramento, whose baby is not yet a year old.
“We need to protect our children, you need to protect your own children, and protect children in the community at large. It’s a public health issue, it affects everyone.”
The sentiment was echoed in a letter California’s U.S. senators sent Wednesday to the state’s secretary of health and human services.
“While a small number of children cannot be vaccinated due to an underlying medical condition, we believe there should be no such thing as a philosophical or personal-belief exemption, since everyone uses public spaces,” Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein wrote in a letter to California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley. “As we have learned in the past month, parents who refuse to vaccinate their children not only put their own family at risk, but they also endanger other families who choose to vaccinate.”
A spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown indicated initial support, too.
“The Governor believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit and any bill that reaches his desk will be closely considered,” spokesman Evan Westrup wrote in an email.
Yet criticism of the proposal raged on Facebook among parents who are skeptical of vaccines.
“It’s a matter of ‘choice.’ I don’t need the government telling me what to do with my child. It’s my child. My choice. I never bash anyone that chooses to vaccinate. It’s having the prenatal right to choose taken away that is a huge problem,” Evelyn Meletlidis wrote on a public Facebook page called Families for Early Autism Treatment. She did not return a phone call from The Bee.
The number of personal-belief exemptions in California schools has dwindled in the last year, following a 2012 law authored by Pan that requires parents to consult with a doctor before they can opt out of vaccines. It used to be that parents could sign the exemption form themselves, but now it must also be signed by a doctor who acknowledges telling the parents about the risks and benefits of vaccinations.
Pan said he is willing to consider crafting a religious exemption, which is in place in all but two states.
“I think it would be good to have a discussion about the religious exemption and what the nature of that would be. The goal is to get our immunization rates to a level high enough to protect the public,” Pan said.
When he signed Pan’s previous bill, Brown directed the state Department of Public Health to preserve the religious exemption.
This school year, about 13,260 California parents filed “personal-belief” forms exempting their kindergartners from vaccinations, a drop of 20 percent from 2013-14, according to the state Department of Public Health. In other words: about 2.5 percent of kindergartners now opt out of vaccines, down from 3.1 percent the prior year.
But the numbers are much larger in certain communities, typically those with wealthy, highly-educated residents. In the Sacramento region, Nevada, Placer and El Dorado counties have higher rates of unvaccinated kindergartners.
Under existing law, California is one of 20 states that allow parents to opt out of vaccinating their children due to personal beliefs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Allen, a former president of the Santa Monica school board, said he hopes California “joins the league of civilized states” in tightening the rules for immunizing school kids.
Though the opt-out rate is high in the wealthy coastal district he represents, Allen said he’s also hearing a lot of frustration from the vaccinated families in his area that could influence the political debate.
“One of the only good things coming out of this recent outbreak is that I think it’s raising public awareness of the need for vaccination,” he said. “It’s reminding people.”
Pan, a pediatrician, said he has seen children suffer from illnesses that could have been prevented by vaccines.
“The science hopefully should not become politicized. We should be talking about how do we protect the public. That’s one of the most fundmanetal roles of government ... public safety and protecting the public. This is what this bill is about.”
Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.