State PTA: Put public health first on vaccination bill

Rhett Krawitt, 6, who could not be vaccinated while he was being treated for leukemia, speaks in favor of SB 277 at a hearing of the Senate Education Committee on April 15.
Rhett Krawitt, 6, who could not be vaccinated while he was being treated for leukemia, speaks in favor of SB 277 at a hearing of the Senate Education Committee on April 15. The Associated Press

The California State PTA, the state’s largest children’s advocacy association, supports Senate Bill 277 because we believe it’s in the best interest of children’s health, education and well-being.

Public debate about SB 277, which is scheduled for a vote Wednesday before the Senate Education Committee, has been charged with emotion – and we understand that. The PTA has a long track record of encouraging and training parents from all backgrounds to learn about education and health issues, and to advocate for their children. It is a good thing when the voice of parents is heard in local school board rooms and legislative committee rooms.

We also have a long history of speaking up for all children, especially those who need an extra voice. And that is why we support SB 277.

Currently, children entering the school system or child care are required to be immunized against various communicable diseases unless they medically cannot receive immunizations, or unless immunization is contrary to personal beliefs. SB 277 would eliminate the personal belief exemption and protect the vital educational rights of vulnerable children who cannot be vaccinated.

We understand and respect the perspective of a small minority of parents who believe the personal belief exemption should trump any other considerations, but we stand behind the greater need to maintain access for all students to a safe and healthy school learning environment.

It is important to note that SB 277 does not interfere with the medical exemption that is allowed under current law; parents who are concerned about the potential medical impact can and should consult a physician.

We urge understanding for parents and advocates on both sides of this issue. As a statewide organization, we also believe it is imperative to help make sure that facts and emotions do not get intertwined to the potential detriment of children.

The vaccines in use today are extremely safe and effective. Outbreaks of contagious diseases have been very well controlled for many years due to “community immunity” achieved by widespread vaccinations. So much so, in fact, that many forget how lethal some of these diseases such as measles can be. The recent outbreaks of measles and pertussis should be wake-up calls that we cannot ignore.

We cannot let our vigilance slip as we work together to eradicate these fully preventable diseases. Making sure all children who are medically able to be vaccinated enter school immunized is a proven way to accomplish this. If 96 percent or more of our population is vaccinated against communicable diseases, the small portion of people who medically cannot be vaccinated are protected. These children are extremely vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases and have a greater chance of dying than the general population.

It is our duty as a community to protect these children in school. Others such as infants and adults who have compromised immune systems are also at risk.

Tough decisions come with the job of being a legislator. We hope senators will not shy away from the tough but right decision to pass SB 277.

Colleen A.R. You of Belmont is president of the California State PTA.