Health

Disney measles outbreak: State lawmakers propose ditching 'personal' vaccine exemption

US - HEALTH-IMMUNIZATION - SCHOOL
US - HEALTH-IMMUNIZATION - SCHOOL
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With California dealing with the measles outbreak that began at the Anaheim Disney theme parks, three state lawmakers Wednesday proposed ditching the law that allows parents to not vaccinate their children based on "personal belief."

State Senators Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) say they will introduce legislation that will repeal the Personal Belief Exemption. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) has signed on as a co-author.

"As a pediatrician, I’ve been worried about the anti-vaccination trend for a long time," says Pan, who adds, "I’ve personally witnessed the suffering caused by these preventable diseases and I am very grateful to the many parents that are now speaking up and letting us know that our current laws don’t protect their kids."

Parents, he says, are telling him: "'Please do something. I am now really concerned that my child could be exposed to measles or some other vaccine-preventable illness. Because people aren't getting vaccinated, these diseases are spreading.'"

There have been more than 100 confirmed measles cases since the outbreak began, more than 90 of them in California. State public health officials say they know the vaccination status of 45 victims, and that 36 of them were unvaccinated.

Sen. Allen, former board president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, says "the high number of unvaccinated students is jeopardizing public health not only in schools but in the broader community.  We need to take steps to keep our schools safe and our students healthy."

When asked whether Gov. Brown supports the bill, spokesman Evan Westrup says in an email, "the Governor believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit and any bill that reaches his desk will be closely considered."

Separately Wednesday, U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer sent a letter to the head of California's Health and Human Services department and other state officials urging them to reconsider the state's policy on vaccine exemptions.

"While a small number of children cannot be vaccinated due to an underlying medical condition, we believe there should be no such thing as a philosophical or personal belief exemption, since everyone uses public spaces," Boxer and Feinstein wrote.  Noting that the Personal Belief Exemption form allows parents to opt out after talking with a doctor or just by checking a box that says they have a religious objection, the senators said, "We think both options are flawed."

There are 20 states in the U.S. that allow parents to opt out of vaccination based on personal beliefs; 48 states allow for an exemption on religious grounds.

Pan had written a bill that passed in 2012 requiring parents who want to use the Personal Belief Exemption to first talk with a health care provider about their decision. That law took effect in the current school year, and according to Pan's office, 20 percent fewer parents took advantage of the exemption. 

But there are still pockets where there are high numbers of parents using the exemption; in Southern California, they're concentrated in wealthier areas of West L.A. and the Orange County coast.

When Gov. Brown signed Pan's 2012 bill, he ordered that a religious exemption be added to the Personal Belief Exemption form. Asked Wednesday if he intends to eliminate that exemption as well, Pan indicated to KPCC that he's leaving the door open to retaining it.

"We certainly would welcome a discussion about the necessity for a religious belief exemption and the nature of that exemption," he said.

Experts note that immunization rates in a community need to be at least 90 percent or higher to provide "herd immunity" against various contagious diseases. The anti-vaccination trend has pushed that number below that threshold in numerous schools and day care centers.

The bill would also add to the state Education Code a requirement that parents be notified of the immunization rates at a particular school, at the time of enrollment.

KPCC's online polls are not scientific surveys of local or national opinion. Rather, they are designed as a way for our audience members to engage with each other and share their views. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page, facebook.com/kpcc, or in the comments below.

This story has been updated, and corrected regarding the number of states that allow for a personal belief exemption.