California’s Senate Health Committee debated a bill Wednesday to end personal belief exemptions to mandatory vaccines for schoolchildren.
Though the bill passed out of committee by a vote of 6 to 2, many people on both sides of this issue turned out to voice their opinions at the hearing.
Under current California law, parents are allowed to enroll their children in school without mandatory vaccines if they state that vaccinations conflict with their religious or personal beliefs. In 2013, state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) introduced a bill that eventually became law, requiring parents to sit down with a health-care provider to learn the risks of not vaccinating their children before they could claim a personal exemption.
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Since then, the number of unvaccinated children enrolled in California schools under such an exemption has dropped by 20 percent.
Pan, a pediatrician by training, still thinks too many California kids are unvaccinated. He and his colleague, state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), introduced SB 277 to get rid of the personal belief exemption altogether.
“Every year that goes by we are adding to the number of unvaccinated people and so that’s putting everyone at greater risk. We shouldn’t have to wait until someone sickens and dies to act,” Pan said in February, as Rewire reported.
If the bill becomes law, children would need all required vaccines before registering for school unless there is a medical reason that they could not be vaccinated or their parents have a religious objection. Among children who entered kindergarten in the 2014-2015 school year, 2 percent were unvaccinated under a personal belief exemption and .5 percent under a religious objection.
“We are seeing ever larger outbreaks of diseases like pertussis, whooping cough, measles, and we certainly don’t want to see those diseases or others that are prevented by vaccines to be spread into our communities,” Pan said at Wednesday’s hearing. “We have diseases that are showing up on public transit and restaurants and schools and shopping centers, theme parks, that is not what we want California to be.”
Some of those who spoke in favor of the pro-vaccination bill were directly affected by the recent outbreaks. Pasadena nurse Ariel Loop explained that her 4-month-old son, Mobius, contracted the measles at Disneyland because he was too young to be vaccinated.
“I was just stunned,” she said. “The idea of him or some other child dying from something as stupid as a fever or the complications of [the measles] in 2015 is just unnecessary.”
Loop said her son is still suffering from complications related to the measles.
Dr. Dean Blumberg, testifying on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the California Medical Association, said childhood vaccinations have been so successful that it’s easy to overstate their risks and dismiss the diseases they prevent.
“Unfortunately, there’s much misinformation about vaccine safety and effectiveness,” Blumberg said. “Let me be clear: There is no scientific controversy about vaccine safety and vaccine effectiveness. … This is not open to dispute among mainstream doctors and scientists.”
Outside the capitol, among hundreds of vaccine opponents who gathered wearing red shirts, much of the discussion was about vaccine safety and efficacy.
“I’d rather get the measles than die from a vaccine. I know babies who have died right after their vaccines, it happens,” one protester said, News 6 San Diego reported.
“They are taking our rights away completely to vaccinate our children,” another anti-vaccine protester reportedly said. “I believe vaccines do more harm than good.”
Fueling the fire was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the former attorney general and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, who spoke at a film screening on Tuesday night and again at the rally outside the capitol on Wednesday.
Kennedy is the editor of the book, Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak, which claims that the chemical once found in vaccines causes autism. He is also promoting Trace Amounts, an anti-vaccination film.
At the film screening, Kennedy asked how many parents had children harmed by vaccines.
“They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone,” Kennedy said, according to a local report. “This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”
Kennedy admitted that he’d gotten all six of his children vaccinated.
There have been 159 cases of the measles reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015, which is more than are seen in most full years. One hundred and seventeen of these cases are linked to the outbreak at Disneyland in California.
Public health experts believe that vaccinations rates of more than 90 percent are necessary to introduce herd immunity and prevent a few cases of measles from becoming an outbreak. Though the overall rate in the country is above that threshold, there are some pockets of the country in which fewer than 90 percent of school children are vaccinated.