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Vaccine "personal exemptions" get shot down in Berkeley

California starts to get tough on anti-vax exceptions


Mary Elizabeth Williams
April 8, 2015 6:27PM (UTC)

Watch out, anti-vaxxers. Because if Berkeley can take a stand, the rest of California might just follow suit. And then who knows? We might actually wind up wiping out measles. Again.

On Wednesday, California Senate Bill 277 — a controversial proposal to do away with "personal beliefs" vaccine exemptions and require school districts to notify parents of school immunization rates — makes its way to the state capitol, where its merits will be weighed by a nine-member Senate Health Committee. But in Berkeley Tuesday night, the City Council voted 7-1 to approve the bill, and notified Sacramento of the city's support for it.

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California is currently one of twenty US states that allows parents to opt out of the required vaccinations for school attendance. But a measles outbreak earlier this year — one that seems to have originated at Disneyland — has ignited a new debate about the public health risks of not vaccinating. In January, Marin county father Carl Krawitt went public with his crusade to reverse his county's high personal exemption rate and get schools to "require immunization as a condition of attendance." As Krawitt, whose son Rhett underwent four years of leukemia treatment and is still ineligible for vaccination, explained at the time, "If you choose not to immunize your own child and your own child dies because they get measles, OK, that’s your responsibility, that’s your choice. But if your child gets sick and gets my child sick and my child dies, then … your action has harmed my child." And in March, Jimmy Kimmel took the debate to late night, firmly speaking out against parents who "learn about the human body from their friends’ Facebook page."

But the road toward stricter vaccination requirements is still a challenging one. Similar measures to strike down vaccine exemptions have recently been defeated in Oregon and Washington state. It promises to be a squeaker in California, where the Mercury News says, "An informal survey of Senate Health Committee members by this newspaper found that three will vote yes, one is 'leaning yes,' one will vote no and the other four are undecided." It also reports that "They say they are being flooded with emails, letters and calls appealing to them to kill the bill." Even if it passes through the committee, though, the bill has several more legislative hurdles to clear before it could be signed by the governor. And it will also have to overcome more strong public opposition — like the very vocal local residents who turned out for Tuesday's vote in Berkeley. "There is no overuse of personal exemptions in California," said one woman, apparently untroubled by the staggering number of schools with high exemption rates, or the public health officials who warn what happens to herd immunity when vaccine rates dip. Over a seven year period in California, the opt-out rate doubled — and, relatedly, the state saw a stunning resurgence in measles and whooping cough rates. But as one concerned resident put it Tuesday evening, "This bill reeks of the very worst knee-jerk politics and fear mongering I've seen since 9-11." Since 9-11.

Personal beliefs should never override public health. If you really don't want your child to be vaccinated, please do everybody else a favor and don't put your kid in school. And whatever happens in Sacramento, the fact remains that we have tolerated scientific ignorance far too long, and we are not going back.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

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

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