Vaccinations: California Senate eliminates religious, personal exemptions

The legislation, which now goes to the California Assembly, is the latest outcome of the debate between public health officials in favor of vaccinations and those who oppose inoculating their children.

Steve Yeater/AP
Senate Judiciary chairwoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D) of Santa Barbara listens to testimony during a hearing on the mandatory vaccination bill SB 277 on April 28, 2015, in Sacramento, Calif. The legislation, which passed the Senate on May 14, mandates that California schoolchildren be vaccinated in an effort to combat recent outbreaks of measles and whooping cough.

California parents who choose not to vaccinate their children may have to start considering home schooling, according to a bill passed by the state Senate on Thursday. The legislation, which would eliminate the exemption for personal or religious beliefs that allows parents to forgo vaccinations, is the latest outcome of the debate between public health officials in favor of vaccinations and those who oppose inoculating their children.  

California senators voted 25 to 10 in favor of the bill following a heated debate.

The bill now goes to the state Assembly, and, if passed, it would also require approval from Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. If the legislation becomes law, California would be the third state in the country, following Mississippi and West Virginia, that does not permit vaccination exemptions due to religious or personal beliefs.

After a measles outbreak at Disneyland in California affected more than 100 people earlier this year, at least 11 state legislatures began weighing eliminating either the personal belief or religious exemptions for vaccinations, and in some cases, both. According to health officials, between 90 and 95 percent of people must be vaccinated against various diseases to achieve what is known as “herd immunity.” But some lawmakers say the alleged threat to public health does not justify curbing civil liberties.

"It comes down to what do we as a society trade when we mandate that somebody has to do something in order to protect somebody else," Senate Republican leader Bob Huff told Reuters.

Mr. Huff, who voted against the bill, added that the measles outbreak did not rise "to the level where we have to give up personal freedom."

But many health officials say it is imperative for students attending school to be vaccinated in order to protect those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. Under the California bill, students who have not received vaccinations must be home-schooled.

 “I would ... suggest that we should stop basing our vaccination policies on models that made sense in a world of constrained vaccine supply, and aim for 100 percent vaccination coverage among those who can get vaccinated,” wrote Marcel Salathé, assistant professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, for The Washington Post.

In an effort to calm parents’ fears, many health professionals assert that the risks children could face from vaccines are far fewer than those from the diseases themselves. They also point out that the study linking the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella to autism has been discredited.

"I would much rather have my children get the vaccine than the disease itself,” Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious diseases and public health specialist, told CNN.

Some experts have noted that parents have a key role in determining how the vaccination issue plays out.

"High levels of vaccine compliance are highly dependent on parents' goodwill," Mark Largent, a historian at Michigan State University in East Lansing and the author of "Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America,” told the Monitor’s Amanda Paulson in February.

"If you want to increase the number of kids who are vaccinated against communicable diseases, you have to admit that ultimately parents get to make this decision.”

Against this backdrop, California lawmakers pushed ahead, saying that exemptions affect public health.

"The personal beliefs exemption is endangering the public," Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician and coauthor of the bill, told Reuters.

While the California bill does not mandate vaccinations, it does contain the home-schooling requirement for unvaccinated children. Critics say they are concerned the legislation could keep kids out of school.

"It's clear that a large portion of concerned parents will likely withhold their children from public schools because of their concerns or lack of comfort from the vaccination process," GOP state Sen. John Moorlach told a local ABC affiliate.

Waivers for medical reasons would still be available to students who attend a public or private school.

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