The Disneyland measles outbreak is seen by many as the warning shot across the bow. All it took was one infected park visitor and dozens of unvaccinated bystanders to unleash a potentially lethal disease that had been all but eradicated in this country. As a result, it has spread throughout California and several other states.
“As recently as 2000, federal health officials had declared that the U.S. had eliminated measles, though that disease, like others, continues to be a problem in Southeast Asia, parts of Europe and elsewhere,” the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board wrote in mid-January.
“Then came the rise of the anti-vaxxers,” they continue. “Waving discredited scientific reports that falsely tie vaccines to autism, these foolish parents, many from affluent enclaves like Disneyland’s Orange County, stopped immunizing their children. Ignoring the continuing risk of infection from Third World travelers and the importance of the ‘herd immunity’ that protects everybody, they have undermined years of progress.”
Warns the Bee, “Since 2006, the percentage of California kindergartners vaccinated for measles has fallen from 95 percent to 92.6 percent, perilously close to the 92 percent threshold. Predictably, the disease has returned: Between 2013 and 2014, cases more than tripled nationally and nearly quadrupled in California.”
On Wednesday, Senator Richard Pan and Senator Ben Allen introduced legislation that will repeal the personal belief exemption that currently allows parents to effectively opt their child out of vaccines in our schools.
“As a pediatrician, I’ve been worried about the anti-vaccination trend for a long time,” said Dr. Richard Pan, a State Senator representing Sacramento. “I’ve personally witnessed the suffering caused by these preventable diseases and I am very grateful to the many parents that are now speaking up and letting us know that our current laws don’t protect their kids.”
“The high number of unvaccinated students is jeopardizing public health not only in schools but in the broader community. We need to take steps to keep our schools safe and our students healthy,” said Senator Ben Allen.
“Here in California, we are currently suffering from yet another epidemic of whooping cough, and now an outbreak of measles – both are completely preventable,” said Leah Russin, a mother from Palo Alto during a press conference. “My husband and I worry our son will get sick if we put him in daycare – many day cares in my area have vaccination rates well below what’s necessary to protect the community.”
According to the press release, under current law, with California’s personal belief exemption, “a parent may choose to opt their child out of school vaccine requirements that bi-partisan legislative majorities passed to protect students.”
Under a measure authored by Dr. Pan in 2012, “parents who exempt a child from school vaccinations must first talk with a licensed health care practitioner about the impacts to their child and community.”
In the first year the state law was implemented, 20 percent fewer parents used the personal belief exemption, said Dr. Pan’s office. However, in many communities across the state, over 10 percent of parents are using California’s personal belief exemption.
“When a contagion spreads in a community with immunization rates below 90 percent, the protection provided by ‘herd immunity’ can be at risk. This means many people are at risk of becoming infected including people who cannot be immunized, including infants, chemotherapy patients and those with HIV or other conditions,” said the release.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who represents San Diego and has signed on as an early co-author of the measure, said, “As a mother, I know the decisions we make about our children’s healthcare are deeply personal. And, while I respect that fundamental right to make medical decisions for your own family, a parent’s decision to ignore science and medical facts puts other children at risk. We as a state can’t condone that.”
If this legislation is passed, the senators state that California will join thirty-two other states that don’t allow parents to opt out of vaccination requirements using a personal belief exemption.
Senator Pan’s office back in late January put out a release claiming that the 2013 legislation “has led to a dramatic 20 percent decrease in parents opting out of vaccinating their kindergarteners, reversing a decade-long trend, [and] he has announced plans to introduce a bill to notify parents of their child’s school vaccination rates.”
“As a pediatrician, I have personally witnessed children suffering life-long injury and death from vaccine-preventable infection,” said Dr. Richard Pan, a physician and senator representing Sacramento and West Sacramento. “While I am pleased that more families are choosing to immunize their children and the statewide rates are going in the right direction, it is important to know that there are pockets of the state where the low vaccination rates continue to put children at risk.”
“Vaccines prevent serious and potentially life-threatening diseases and parents deserve to know the rates at the school they trust to protect their child,” Dr. Pan continued.
Under AB 2109, starting in January of 2014, parents who exempt a child from school vaccinations must first talk with a licensed health care practitioner about the impacts to their child and community. In the first year the state law was implemented, 20 percent fewer parents used the personal belief exemption compared with last year.
“Of course the intent of AB 2109 was to increase vaccination rates, but it is nice that the outcome was what we had hoped,” said Dean Blumberg, Associate Professor and Chief of Pediatric Infection Diseases at UC Davis. “And much like the first bill was about providing parents with correct information, it is also important for parents to know the vaccination rates at their child’s school.”
“As health care advocates, we have an obligation to ensure that accurate information about vaccines is getting to parents and the public – AB 2109 helped make that happen,” said Catherine Flores-Martin, Director of the California Immunization Coalition.
Senator Pan plans introduce a measure this year to notify parents of their child’s school immunization rates as well as what public health officials recommend the vaccinate rate should be in order to protect people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, including chemotherapy patients, babies or those with HIV or other conditions.
As stated above, “When a contagion spreads in a community with immunization rates below 90 percent the protection provided by ‘herd immunity’ can be at risk. This means not only those who choose to be unimmunized may become infected, but also people who cannot be immunized, including infants, too young to have received important vaccines,” said Kris Calvin, Chief Executive Officer of the American Academy of Pediatrics, California.
Recent reports show that only two Davis public schools have vaccination rates above 95 percent among kindergartners entering school this year. That is below the level needed to prevent outbreaks of various diseases that were thought to have been eradicated in this country.
The report notes that 44 of 724 children who entered kindergarten in Davis were unvaccinated, with only three having religious exemptions and none having medical ones.
—David M. Greenwald reporting