Legislation proposed on Wednesday in Sacramento would end the “personal belief” exemptions for childhood immunizations in California.
The bill, by Sens. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Ben Allen (D-Redondo Beach), comes on the heels of a major outbreak of measles in California and an increasing number of whooping cough cases — two communicable diseases that at one point were nearly eradicated in the state.
Also on Wednesday, California’s two U.S. senators — Barbara Boxer (D) and Dianne Feinstein (D) — wrote a strongly worded letter to California health officials, asking them to abandon the personal belief exemptions from childhood vaccination requirements.
The recent measles outbreak that originated in California has now spread to 100 cases in 14 states, the letter pointed out to California HHS Secretary Diana Dooley.
“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,” the letter said. “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.”
Infants are particularly at-risk because they can’t be vaccinated right away and their immune systems are still developing, Pan said. A child who has been vaccinated can still bring the disease home from school from an unvaccinated schoolmate, he said.
“This is about protecting the public,” Pan said. “The state often gives public health officers extreme powers when an epidemic hits. But why wait until an epidemic hits?”
The bill has not been assigned a number yet and the text has not yet been publicly posted.
Diseases such as polio and rubella were scourges in the relatively recent past, Pan said — and when immunizations were first introduced, they were a godsend, he said.
“In the past, people saw how dangerous these diseases were. When polio and measles outbreaks were happening people were terrified, and rightly so,” Pan said. “People stood in line for hours to get vaccinated. But I think now, vaccinations have become a victim of their own success. People don’t understand the danger.”
This kind of requirement has always been advanced by public officials, Pan said, from seat belts and car insurance to traffic laws.
“What we’re saying is, if you want to enroll your child in school you need to get them immunized,” Pan said. “Vaccines are required, with the exception of medical reasons.”
Pan said he could be open to including religious exemptions, but the two U.S. senators disagreed.
“Some preschools had measles vaccination rates as low as 36%. These numbers are alarming to public officials and health experts,” the senators’ letter said. Public health officials have said a 92% vaccination rate is the low acceptable level to prevent outbreaks, but that a 95% immunization rate is safer.
California law currently allows parents to opt out of vaccine requirements for school by first consulting with a licensed health care provider or they can claim religious objections.
“We think both options are flawed,” the senators’ letter said.
“Most states don’t have an exemption at all,” Pan said. “The ultimate goal is to get the vaccination rates up. This is about public safety. I’ve had so many calls from parents who are scared to send their kids to school. We need to protect the public.”