On Tuesday, the state moved one step closer to rescinding a personal-belief exemption to childhood vaccine laws in California.
The Assembly Committee on Health spent more than four hours in hearing deliberations — sometimes heated and emotional — on SB 277 by Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento). They eventually approved it on a 12-6 partisan vote.
Hundreds of Californians from all over the state queued up at yesterday’s hearing to register their opinions, most of them opposing the bill. One anti-vaccination advocate was escorted out of the hearing for being disruptive.
“This has certainly generated an unprecedented amount of civic engagement,” said committee chair Assembly member Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), at the end of the marathon hearing.
“But I believe vaccines are one of the greatest privileges of living in the 21st century,” Bonta concluded. “This is fundamentally a bill about public health and I will be voting aye today.”
Critics of the bill argued a wide range of concerns, including the contention that removing the personal-belief exemption — which has enabled parents to opt out of vaccinating their children by signing a form — could force parents who don’t want to immunize their children to home-school them.
“Truly this bill is not about vaccines,” said Assembly member Rocky Chavez (R-Oceanside). “It’s about freedom.”
According to bill author Pan, parents could still get medical exemptions if they feel their children might be harmed by vaccines. Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said unimmunized children could pose a threat to other children in public school, particularly those who are immune-compromised and can’t get vaccines.
“I don’t want my constituents to be misled,” Gonzalez said. “Personal liberty doesn’t include harming others.”
Opponents also said the bill wasn’t necessary, since immunization rates across the state are not at dangerous levels.
Pan said the measles outbreak that started at Disneyland happened, in part, because of a large number of unimmunized children — and outbreaks will continue unless immunization rates can be raised, particularly in those neighborhoods where opt-out rates are much higher.
“We don’t want to wait for another outbreak, and another one,” Pan said. “It is time to act.”
Opposition to the bill also came from an unlikely source — one of the bill’s co-authors, Assembly member Adrin Nazarian (D-Sherman Oaks).
Nazarian pushed for an amendment to be added to the bill that would ensure physicians issue medical exemptions for siblings of children who parents feel have been harmed by vaccines.
“If we could find room within the legislation, if there could be something that allows for genetic predisposition, it would offer me comfort of mind,” Nazarian said.
“But people have not identified a genetic predisposition [for vaccine injury],” Pan said.
Pan agreed at the hearing’s end to add an amendment that would make sure physicians know they can include family history in making their professional determination of medical exemptions.
Much of the testimony mirrored arguments made in Senate committees over the past month. One new story came from physician Catherine Sonquist Forest, the medical director at Stanford’s primary care clinic in Los Altos, who said one of her patients is dying from complications from measles.
The four-year-old boy now in hospice care would not have contracted measles if the state’s herd immunity had been stronger, she said.
“My patient was only five months old when he was hospitalized with measles — too young to be immunized,” Sonquist Forest said in a written statement. “By the time he was old enough for immunization, it was already too late for him.”
Now a complication of measles will soon kill the boy, she said.
“If we continue to allow children to go unvaccinated, we will see more hospitalizations and deaths, as unvaccinated persons spread disease to innocent victims,” she said. “Allowing personal-belief exemptions means allowing exposure of those who cannot be immunized. That is unfair to those who cannot choose, like infants and the immune-compromised.”
SB 277 has passed the Senate; next stop is a vote on the Assembly floor.