California got a wakeup call last year when a measles outbreak at Disneyland spread nationally and outbreaks of other contagious diseases that had once been tamed by vaccines, like whooping cough, were suddenly on the loose again.
California is one of 18 states that allow parents to enroll their children in school without vaccinations for philosophical or personal reasons, without a religious or medical argument for skipping the shots. National polling shows more than 75% of people think vaccinations should be required, personal apprehension notwithstanding, and it looked like legislation introduced in February was going to do that.
But last week, the rubber hit the road when a very vocal minority showed up at an Education Committee hearing to argue against passage of Senate Bill 277 and told lawmakers they were facing the prospect of 13,000 people with vaccine exemptions pulling their kids from public schools en masse. The legislation was put on hold while lawmakers pondered where the middle ground existed between the two sides.
It is difficult to see where that might be. It is an established scientific fact that when the vaccination rate in a given population falls below 95%, the public at large loses herd immunity. So by allowing the minority an opportunity to follow their convictions, others are put at risk.
A very small number of children can't receive vaccinations for medical reasons. Some parents oppose vaccinations for religious reasons, and others because they distrust government-mandated health solutions.
But the anti-vax movement has its greatest support from those who have bought into the argument that a component of the vaccine causes autism. Many of them are wealthy. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that there is no connection between the two.
More than 150 schools in Los Angeles County have exemption rates of 8% or higher for at least one of the five vaccines recommended for children, according to a study by the Los Angeles Times. All of them are in areas with incomes averaging $94,500, 60% higher than the county median. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District had an exemption rate of 14.8% last year. Capistrano Unified in Orange County checked in at 9.5%.
Arguments that California would be violating its own Constitution by requiring vaccinations for school attendance have not fallen on deaf ears. The Senate Education Committee staff analysis of the bill noted concerns by the American Civil Liberties Union: “Unlike other states, public education is a fundamental right under the California Constitution. (Serrano v. Priest, 5 Cal.3d 584 (1971); Serrano v. Priest, 18 Cal.3d 728 (1976).) Equal access to education must therefore not be limited or denied unless the State demonstrates that its actions are necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.”
Then again, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states may use their “police power” to require vaccinations.
Most states have solved this conundrum by blowing off the minority complaints, but they did it without the national spotlight that has brought to the fore a lot of certifiably false information and nasty histrionics. A couple of weeks ago, Robert Kennedy Jr., said at a screening of the anti-vax movie “Trace Amounts” in Sacramento, “They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”
Kennedy later apologized for the holocaust remark, which came just days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, and said he would search for expressions short of genocide to convey his misgivings about vaccines.
In the run-up to the hearing last week, lawmakers had expressed a willingness to pass the legislation based on the science and the overwhelming popular support for vaccination. But the ferocity of the opposition seemed to catch committee members by surprise. “We’re hearing from a lot of people out there,” Democratic state Senator Carol Liu told the Sacramento Bee. “They were inundating our phones, etc. I think my staff was overwhelmed.”
The Bee said the bill will come up for reconsideration again this week and if a path forward is not immediately found, the bill is likely dead.