(Editor’s note: Updates with committee action)
Passions were high as a bill meant to tighten the state’s already strict child vaccination law was approved at its first policy hearing Wednesday before the senate health committee.
Just four years after the state eliminated the personal beliefs exemption that allowed parents to skip vaccinations for their children, the new bill would require the state public health department to review all requests for exemptions for medical reasons.
California has one of the toughest vaccination laws in the country with children prohibited from attending public school, private school or day care without getting required vaccines or a medical exemption from a doctor.
Sen. Richard Pan, a Sacramento pediatrician who authored both bills, said his new legislation, SB 276, is necessary to combat a handful of doctors writing fake medical exemptions. “It is clear that a small number of physicians are monetizing their exemption-granting authority and profiting from the sale of medical exemptions,” he said.
The committee approved his bill in a 6-2 vote.
An estimated 2,000-3,000 people rallied in Sacramento against the bill two weeks ago, saying it would harm the doctor-patient relationship and endanger medically fragile children who need to be protected. Robert Kennedy Jr. said the law ignores the real risks of vaccines, and urged the crowd to fight the religion of “Vaccinology,” which allows no one to raise questions about the safety or effectiveness of vaccines.
California has one of the toughest vaccination laws in the country with children prohibited from attending public school, private school or day care without getting required vaccines or a medical exemption from a doctor. Since the passage of Pan’s Senate Bill 277 in 2015, the kindergarten vaccination rate has increased to 95.1 percent, 4.7 percentage points higher than before the approval of the law, according to the state public health department.
But medical exemptions have more than tripled, from .2 percent of kindergarteners obtaining them in 2015-16 to .7 percent in 2017-18. A few doctors have become known for writing exemptions. The Voice of San Diego reported that one doctor wrote a third of all medical exemptions for San Diego children.
California removed the personal beliefs exemption to vaccines after 52 cases of measles were traced to an unvaccinated person’s visit to Disneyland in 2014.
Moreover, some schools have continued to maintain low vaccination rates. About 50 California schools have vaccination rates of 50 percent or lower, much less than the 95 percent rate necessary to protect those who can’t be vaccinated from diseases like babies or those with compromised immune systems.
Under SB 276, medical exemptions could only be based on narrow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All medical exemptions would be tracked in a statewide database. The bill is supported by the California Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics in California.
So far, no medical exemption has been proved to be fake. Leah Russin, a volunteer parent with Vaccinate California, said the state board can’t determine that without patients agreeing to provide their medical records. The patients who get the reportedly fake exemptions are complicit and are trying to hide that, she said.
“We can see people coaching each other on social media on what to say to get one,” she said. “We can see people telling each other here’s the doctor and who will grant one without examining their kid.”
California removed the personal beliefs exemption to vaccines after 52 cases of measles were traced to an unvaccinated person’s visit to Disneyland in 2014. A small outbreak of measles last year in Santa Clara County involved families who chose not to vaccinate, including two boys whose mother lied to public health officials about their immunization status.
Russin said the parents who are trying to circumvent the system are being driven by fear rather than science. While she agrees there are risks to vaccines, “By the statistics, the risks are far, far more from the disease if you don’t get vaccinated,” she said.
As proposed, the new bill will make it virtually impossible to get medical exemptions, Hildebrand said.
The anti-vaccination movement dates back 20 years ago to a now discredited study by Andrew Wakefield linking the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to autism.
At the protest rally earlier this month, Kennedy said parents have good reason to distrust the safety of the vaccines because the pharmacy companies that produce them are corrupt and greedy and can’t by law be sued for vaccine injuries. Mandatory vaccination laws ignore the “hundreds of thousands of moms across the country” who believe their healthy children were injured by vaccines, he said.
Christina Hildebrand president of A Voice for Choice, said her biggest problem with Pan’s new law is that it undermines the doctor-patient relationship and is unnecessary. The state medical board wrote a letter to all doctors writing even one exemption warning them to keep good records about their reasons to do so. This has scared doctors off writing legitimate exemptions.
“Every practice that vaccinates in California should have at least 1 percent that are exemptions,” Hildebrand said. “Many don’t do it, period.”
As proposed, the new bill will make it virtually impossible to get medical exemptions, Hildebrand said, adding “99.9 percent of people who currently have medical exemptions would not be able to apply.”
Del Bigtree, producer of the movie “Vaxxed,” directed by Wakefield, said Pan’s new law would put the health of children in the hands of a bureaucrat in Sacramento rather than their personal physician. He said tighter laws are unnecessary as there has been no return of polio or small pox or a giant outbreak of measles. He wonders if Pan will next propose a bill calling for mandatory adult vaccines. “This is a slippery slope that no one knows they’re on,” he said.