SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – A hotly contested California bill to impose one of the strictest vaccination laws in the nation would boost immunization rates by changing parents’ behavior, according to immunologists and people who have researched the impact of such requirements.
Despite impassioned, ongoing pleas at the Capitol from parents seeking to maintain medical choice, a large portion of those who obtain personal belief exemptions are not fundamentally opposed to vaccination, said Dr. Mark Schleiss, a pediatrician specializing in infectious disease at the University of Minnesota.
Schleiss, who hasn’t taken a position on the bill, said most parents of unvaccinated children want to learn more and better understand the issues. Some parents, he said, simply find it more convenient to sign the back of a form or only partially vaccinate their children.
“I don’t see the majority of parents being so committed to withholding vaccinations that their minds wouldn’t be changed,” he said. “I think this will have an impact.”
The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Richard Pan of Sacramento and Ben Allen of Santa Monica, would only allow children with serious health problems to opt out of school-mandated vaccinations. School-age children who remain unvaccinated would need to be homeschooled.
The California bill would apply to elementary schools, secondary schools and daycare centers.
Hundreds rallied Tuesday ahead of an Assembly committee hearing on the legislation. The bill’s supporters sought to dispel claims that measles no longer poses a threat, while a larger number of critics focused on potential risks associated with vaccines and told lawmakers the proposal was an unnecessary government overreach.
Santa Monica pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon, testifying for the opposition, sought to separate the bill from a December measles outbreak that started at Disneyland and infected over 100 people.
“All cases of measles occurred outside the school environment,” he said. “If SB277 had been in place last year, this outbreak would have proceeded in much the same manner.”
Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor specializing in immunology at University of California, Berkeley, who also hasn’t taken a position on the measure, however, said eliminating the personal belief exemption would be a silver bullet for California as it looks to strengthen its defenses against the spread of communicable disease.
Data from the California Department of Public Health shows that the number of personal belief exemptions for incoming kindergarteners had been rising every year between 2010 until 2014.
But the tide turned in 2014 after the state overhauled its vaccine requirement. That measure, which required parents to obtain a signed waiver from their child’s physician before claiming a personal belief exemption, proved just inconvenient enough to sway those who were “vaccine hesitant,” Swartzberg said.
The percentage of claimed personal belief exemptions fell by 19 percent, settling at about 2.5 percent overall.
“That was the first evidence that using laws to impact behavior would actually be effective,” Swartzberg said.
Researchers believe the bill would provide another round of change for the state to reach what immunologists call “herd immunity,” or the percentage at which enough people are vaccinated to protect the community as a whole.
The California Department of Public Health, however, has been hesitant to draw any conclusions from the 2014 increase in the immunization rate.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, herd immunity for measles is between 92 and 94 percent. In 2014, 92.6 percent of California kindergarteners received the measles vaccine, but a number of suburban pockets outside major cities have vaccination rates far lower.
If the legislation passes, California would join Mississippi and West Virginia with the strictest vaccine laws in the nation, but opposition has been especially passionate.
Echoing previous remarks that likened the bill’s authors to Nazis, Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, at the rally outside the Capitol compared keeping unvaccinated children at home to putting them in internment camps.
He later backed off that comparison, however. “Obviously a poor choice of words on my part today,” he wrote on Twitter.
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