Last year (2014) there was a measles outbreak that traced "patient zero" to The Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland, in Southern California. California scrambled to find an answer to the question of how a mostly eradicated disease could possibly be so virulent to infect hundreds of patients in a mostly vaccinated society. This lead to weeks of debate about the pro and cons of vaccines, the possible autism link, the "dangerous" ingredients and subsequent "cover-ups" done by both the government and Big Pharma, the real risk of measles, and even our ability to govern our own health and bodies... "It's those damned Anti-vaxxers" vs. "You're poisoning the children! (Insert hand-wringing) The Children!"
Whatever the cause, or the fault, it was determined that California had fallen below the "herd immunity" threshold. Herd Immunity is a theoretical percentage of vaccinated population that is high enough that an outbreak will no longer spread... or at least become pandemic. I've read 90%, I've read 80%, it doesn't matter which is true as that number is theoretical anyway. Herd immunity thresholds, in statistics terms, could only be a lagging indicator, because you won't know where it needed to be until there's an outbreak.
We (I am a Californian) needed to do something and since vaccines had long been the responsibilities of the schools (and daycares) SB277 was introduced to the State Legislature.
SB277 in its entirety passed and was signed into law last week.
What's new about SB277? There's really only one important thing to know... it no longer allows exemptions based on "personal beliefs". From this point forward, only "medical exemptions" will be allowed. California would be joining West Virginia and Mississippi with the strictest vaccination requirements in the Nation.
On a side note, some States have, or have had, "religious belief exemptions"... California did not, however, they fell under personal belief exemptions.
So, what is/are/were those personal belief exemptions that were "ruining" our State? Good question. I am enrolling my daughter for Kindergarten next year and had to go through the rigmarole of paperwork it requires. My daughter is fully vaccinated (she's been in pre-school) but I still need to prove it with a doctor's report. So this year I examine the form... the blue one in California, and make an appointment with her doctor to fill it out. $15 for any form filled out through our insurance. No problem. Have to have the original signed (no photocopies), so I have to drop it off, or mail it. No problem. It takes up to three days to get it back, but that's okay, too. I have time.
It's right there on the back. A little box that says "personal belief exemption". I could just check that off... not even initialize it and avoid all this back and forth (and $15).
So, to claim a personal belief exemption, I just have to check a box? Don't I have to plead my case? Don't I have to bring in pages and pages of documents proving the harm of vaccines? Don't I have to recite a Holy Prayer to prove it's against my religion? Don't I need to bring in paperwork to disclose my daughter's immunodeficiency?
Nah. Just check that box.
I can't be the first parent to think of this.
I get asked a lot about vaccines. My son has autism and I am a writer, so friends and family and neighbors and strangers often ask me what I think about the safety of vaccines. I am not, however, a physician or research scientist. The information I can give you comes from those professionals.
I can, unequivocally, tell you vaccines did not cause OUR autism. I can also, unequivocally, tell you that OUR autism is nowhere near miserable, hopeless, or worse "than the slight risk of potentially catching what might someday come back as an historically viciously deadly disease".
Others disagree with those two issues.
I first heard of SB277 from a friend asking me what I thought about vaccines. It was being introduced (maybe February) and the friend that told me about it pitched the bill as follows... "They're introducing a bill in California that only allows medical exemptions."
I thought, cool. Putting public health concerns in the hands of health professionals. I dig that.
And I didn't think about it again.
So, who are the exemptions in my State? Certainly the children with allergies or compromised immune systems that could suffer serious harm from receiving a live vaccine. Certainly the anti-vaxxers. They've got proof that their science is better than yours. Maybe the parent like myself in the above scenario... but that would be a vaccinated child posing as an exemption purely because I'm lazy.
Do those groups really account for the 10-20% of exemptions in this State?
That leads us to who is this bill really for.
How many children in this State have never been to a doctor (outside of an ER or Urgentcare) at Kinder enrollment? How many parents missed an appointment? How many thought it was too much money? How many simply had no idea we vaccinate? How many single parents couldn't afford to take a day off work for this? Much less three? Up to 10 if you want to space out those vaccinations.
And how many of those parents picked up their enrollment packets, saw the blue form, said "what does this mean?", realize they have to wait 3 years to catch up on a proper vaccine schedule to enroll their child...
Or they could just check that box.
But the anti-vaxxers and the sickly are the guys to blame. We can't possibly point the finger at the poor, uneducated or lazy. Not in California!
Maybe we need a better public outreach program. Maybe we need a way to reach ALL of our State. Maybe we need an advertising campaign about the importance of vaccines. Maybe this really is a public health issue and not a school issue after-all. Maybe, just maybe, you should counsel a physician on vaccines instead of bloggers.
How can we get these parents (and kids) to those health care professionals?
It's called SB277.
Here is a copy of the letter Governor Jerry Brown wrote to the State Senate.
What Governor Brown wants from this bill and from our schools and from our State and from our parents and from our Health Professionals is awareness. In his own words, medical exceptions exist "when a physician believes that circumstances - in the judgement and sound discretion of the physician - so warrant"
There is no list of what qualifies as a "medical exemption". Your Doctor doesn't believe in vaccinations? Bam, medical exemption. Your Doctor believes in delayed schedules? Bam, medical exemption. Your doctor thinks it's risky to your child's immune system, even though your child does not have recognized immunodeficiency? Bam. Medical exemption.
It was and is (in Brown's own words) - left purposefully vague.
What I like about this bill, personally, is that it is putting the responsibility of a public health issue back in the hands of health officials. Quite simply, you can still opt out of vaccines, but you need to prove you spoke with a physician about it.
Even better news! The ACA requires all Americans to have health insurance so you can no longer say I couldn't afford to go. But wait, there's more, California also quietly passed a mandatory Paid Sick Leave Act for ALL employees (it went into effect July 1st), so you can no longer say I couldn't afford to miss work to take my kid to get their vaccines.
Putting a public health issue back in the hands of health professionals...
I like the sound of that, Jerry.
There is something deeply disturbing about this bill, too. The punishment for not vaccinating your child is mandatory homeschooling. Can you imagine if this was carried to execution of said threat. One of the greatest undeniable civil liberties of this entire country (California included) is the right to FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) for EVERY child.
Autonomy of your own Health Care and body is debatable as a civil liberty in this country (at least regarding who is going to pay for it).
Free Appropriate Public Education is an undeniable civil liberty. Even mandatory in most states. We are one of only a handful of countries that educate EVERY child, including the very poor, the disabled, and immigrant populations.
We are the only country in the world, that does that for free.
And I am pretty damn proud of that.
Imagine a child denied that right because of what may, or may not, be a public health issue? Imagine a punishment that does not fit the crime of a parent(s)?
If homeschooling were a serious threat, every school district had better be prepared to pay for said homeschooling program, oh, and for the salary of the parent that stays home to administer it.
I will not allow undeniable civil liberties to be taken away from any child in the name of agendas.
But I doubt that will happen. As said before, I think the intent of this bill, now a law, is to get more kids to the doctor.
I don't really see many "real" expulsions from the State via the school district.
And the ACLU agrees with me.
I look at this law like the jury duty law. You can go to jail for ignoring a jury summons. It says so right on the pamphlet (even cites the law). But in the searchable arrest records database, Los Angeles County (the largest County in California)... there are 0 arrests for ditching Jury Duty.
The punishment (of the child) does not fit the "crime" (of the adult) here.
In the end, it doesn't matter what I think. I'm just a dad thinking out loud here. I can listen to the shouting of either side about the harms of vaccines versus the benefits. I can choose to believe whomever I want.
I have that right.
But I probably shouldn't make that decision without the input of my child's pediatrician.
And Jerry Brown wants to make sure I had that conversation.
Putting a public health issue back in the hands of health professionals...
I still like the sound of that.