Seven months after a measles outbreak at a theme park infected more than 100 people, California may be well on its way to strengthening vaccination requirements for children — an policy that pediatricians say would boost immunization rates and stop the spread of disease.
The bill, which was passed by the state legislature on Monday, strikes the personal belief exemption for vaccines and requires children who don’t meet immunization requirements to be homeschooled, unless they get vaccinated by kindergarten and seventh grade. Students who currently claim a personal belief exemption can maintain it until the next deadline.
The bill now awaits California Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. Brown, a Democrat, hasn’t explicitly indicated whether he will sign the bill. “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 told reporters this week.
In years past, parents used the personal belief exemption to bypass the government’s vaccination schedule, creating what supporters of the bill describe as an environment in which diseases can thrive. A March study examining last year’s measles outbreak found that the clusters of people who came into contact with the “patient zero” — whom authorities suspect was a foreign visitor — had vaccination rates well below the recommended threshold of 95 percent, which is the point at which a population enjoys “herd immunity.”
In February, more than a quarter of schools in California had measles-immunization rates that stand below the 95 percent mark, according to an analysis compiled by The New York Times. That realization prompted calls from lawmakers and medical groups across the country to toughen vaccination requirements.
Since last year’s measles outbreak, more than 30 other states have also tried to make strides against the small but vocal group known as “anti-vaxxers” who have been blamed for the recent spread of infection. For example, legislators in Vermont and Oregon have mulled over the elimination of the personal belief exemption. Coloradoan lawmakers also introduced a measure aimed at teaching parents about the risks that come with not vaccinating their children.
But the Golden State found some success in meeting a prominent public health concern. If Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill, California will stand alongside Mississippi and West Virginia, two states with strict immunization requirements in currently place.
Even with the drastic conditions that prompted the bill’s introduction, however, the final law didn’t make its way through the legislative process without some pushback from critics who question the safety of vaccines and argue that immunization requirements shouldn’t impede on parents’ freedom of choice.
Earlier this year, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an outspoken opponent of vaccines, stopped in California while on a national tour to argue thimerosal — a mercury-based compound found in vaccines — causes autism and other brain disorders. California State Assembly GOP Leader Kristen Olsen recently criticized proponents of the bill, calling their efforts to limit use of the personal belief exemption “an emotional reaction to a one-time incident.” In recent weeks, parents took to social media and converged on the steps of the state Capitol to challenge the impending law.
But researchers have long debunked claims of a vaccination-autism link. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Institute of Medicine all say that no evidence supports these marginal views. Additionally, supporters of California’s bill, including Dr. Douglas Opel, point to research that confirms vaccines’ effectiveness in nearly eradicating smallpox, polio, hepatitis A, tetanus, and varicella. “Historically, we know that attaching requirements for school entry to vaccination has been one of the most successful ways to increase immunization rates,” Opel, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in pediatric bioethics, told the Associated Press.
For concerned lawmakers, parents, and medical professionals, there’s little time to waste. Nearly 40 percent of parents living in the states with the personal belief exemption have opted out of vaccinating their children, according to a study released in June. At the beginning of the last school year, health officials in Iowa, Illinois, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Nevada reported an increase in unvaccinated children entering school. Some say the growing anti-vaccine sentiment has paved the way for public health disasters in the recent years, including a measles outbreak among 10 adults and nine children last and a whooping cough epidemic in California — its worst in nearly 70 years — that affected 9,000 people last year.
“I think we have to be much more careful about who is around small babies,” Jonathan Fielding, MD, the director of public health for Los Angeles County, told WedMD shortly after last year’s outbreak. “Hospitals and doctors should be keeping track of immunizations and making sure anyone who is going to be around small children is up to date on immunizations.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed SB 277 on Tuesday, turning California — which used to be one of the most liberal states when it comes to letting parents opt out of vaccines — into one of the strictest.