We're finally getting serious about mandating vaccines

Will the measles outbreak spell the end of "personal exemptions"?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published February 5, 2015 3:25PM (EST)
                (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-162706p1.html'>sergei telegin</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(sergei telegin via Shutterstock)

I think it's safe to say that we've indulged the anti-vax crowd long enough. Now that we've done a bang-up job bringing measles – a potentially serious and once effectively "eradicated" disease -- roaring back in unprecedented numbers this winter, lawmakers are at last taking a harder look at the "personal exemptions" that have for years enabled parents to send their kids to school unvaccinated. It's about time.

On Wednesday, a group of lawmakers in California -- the epicenter of a recent outbreak that appears to have started at Disneyland – introduced legislation that would abolish the current exemption that allows parents of school aged-children to opt out of mandated vaccinations if it conflicts with their beliefs. Speaking at the state capitol and flanked by parents holding babies, Democratic Senator and pediatrician Richard Pan announced, "There are not enough people being vaccinated to contain these dangerous diseases. We should not wait for more children to sicken or die before we act."

For years now, and with increasing acceptance, parents -- often in more affluent areas -- have been able to obtain waivers to avoid vaccinating their children. Meanwhile, the debate over vaccination, often fueled on the opposing side by debunked, disgraced research and some tenaciously selfish rhetoric about what's right for "my child," has been met with regular opposition but a fair amount of grudging tolerance. The measles outbreak has changed things, profoundly. It's made it clear this isn't some bogus "Mommy war" topic on which we just agree to disagree. This isn't Ferberizing or breast vs. bottle. This is a public health issue. It needs to be treated as such. To that end, Carl Krawitt, a Bay Area father of  a young son who's recently completed chemo, has begun leading a push to require vaccines for district school admission. Krawitt cites the very real risks to children with compromised immune systems who can't yet be vaccinated themselves. As he explains, "If your child gets sick and gets my child sick and my child dies, then … your action has harmed my child." And as NPR reports this week, other pro-vaccine parents are now stepping up as well in the doctor's office, urging their pediatricians to drop their anti-vax clients, or they'll take their own children elsewhere.

While all of these indications that many of us are well and truly fed up with the dangerous idiocy of the anti-vax movement are encouraging, it's also true that implementing change is not an easy – or easily enforced -- fix. As the LA Times reported this week, plenty of California schools that already require vaccinations still enroll unvaccinated children on a "conditional" basis, and then conveniently forget to follow up on whether the students are caught up. Similarly, in Arizona, nearly one third of kindergarteners enrolled last year who hadn't been vaccinated against measles didn't even have an official exemption. And it's important to remember that even if more states get a lot stricter about requiring vaccines for school attendance and enforcing those rules, there will always still be families who choose not to vaccinate anyway, and others, like Carl Krawitt's, who have legitimate medical reasons their children cannot be vaccinated. But moving toward far less lenient school policies – as well as parents continuing to make clear they won't support pediatricians who offer personal exemptions – sends the clear message that exposing your kids, and other vulnerable adults and children, to preventable diseases is not an acceptable lifestyle choice. And it's a welcome move toward fewer people getting needlessly sick.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Anti Vaccine Movement Disneyland Measles Measles Outbreak