Gov. Jerry Brown today signed Senate Bill 277, the tough childhood vaccination bill that riveted Californians after thousands of mothers and others opposed to vaccines or to government intervention in their medical decisions packed Capitol hearings this year.
On Monday, the State Senate passed an amended version of SB 277 by a vote of 24-14 and sent it to Brown. It had been rumored for weeks that he would sign it promptly to put an end to the long lines of angry parents who appeared by the busloads, sometimes weeping while grasping small children, to accuse legislators of overstepping their authority by removing the personal-beliefs exemption under California law.
Under the new law, students are prohibited from attending public school without getting vaccinated. Under the old law, children had to be vaccinated against more than a dozen sometimes deadly and often highly contagious diseases before entering school. But parents were allowed to obtain a personal-belief exemption from that rule, from their doctors. And thousands did.
“The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases,” Brown said in a statement today. “While it's true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.”
The personal-beliefs exemption resulted in “low-vaccination” pockets — communities in often upscale and educated areas of California such as Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, West Hollywood and Studio City — in which 10 percent, 30 percent or even higher numbers of parents refused to vaccinate their elementary school children or fell behind on the vaccination schedule of required shots.
Their decisions led to outbreaks of measles and whooping cough in California.
Under California's new law, the only children allowed to attend public school without all of their vaccine shots will be those with medical exemptions approved by a qualified medical doctor. Parents who refuse to vaccinate will be allowed to home school or create as yet not fully understood “public independent studies” off-campus.
Although the chances for the controversial bill were considered iffy when first introduced by state senators Dr. Richard Pan of Sacramento and Ben Allen of Santa Monica, SB 277 gained momentum after the mid-December outbreak of measles at Disneyland. The outbreak was first reported by the media on Jan. 7, just as the two senators were moving forward with their fledgling bill.
The movement to require vaccinations gained even more force when the Los Angeles Times in late January published a shocking interactive map showing vaccination rates at elementary schools in California. The map revealed, school site by school site, hundreds of schools in Southern California and the Bay Area where many thousands of “anti-vaxxer” parents and vaccination-leery parents had been issued personal-belief exemptions.
Those schools' vaccinations rates had in some cases dropped to extremely dangerous levels of 80 percent, 50 percent or even lower.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and the nation's top scientists and physicians, to create “herd immunity” — in which highly contagious diseases such as measles and pertussis are stopped from spreading by a wall of fully immunized people — vaccine rates must be 95 percent or higher in the community.
Leah Russin, a former aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and an ex-attorney with the Department of Interior, is a young mother who became one of the most public faces for Senate Bill 277. She told L.A. Weekly shortly before its passage by the Legislature: “We dodged the bullet on Disneyland,” an outbreak that led to more than 150 cases of measles scattered across the United States and Mexico.
None of the people infected at Disneyland carried the measles back into any of the low-vaccination pockets in California, such as Santa Monica or Marin County, nor did any of them apparently have contact with any of the free-thinking private schools or artsy charter schools with extremely low vaccination rates that have dipped as low, in some cases, as 30 percent.
“If one of those carriers of measles had gone back to one of our anti-vaxxer pockets such as one of the Waldorf schools or an anti-vaccination charter school,” Russin said, “we would have seen a disaster spread from those unvaccinated small children to their older siblings and probably unvaccinated relatives into a community spreading this web of disease to strangers, the sick and vulnerable, and well beyond.”
In February, more than a quarter of schools in California had measles-immunization rates below the 95 percent mark, meaning that their parents had missed at least one shot for their child.
Now, more than 30 other states, including Vermont, Oregon and Colorado, are moving to tighten up vaccination rules or to try to improve public education in response to vocal “anti-vaxxers.”
California now joins only Mississippi and West Virginia as states with strict immunization requirements before children can attend school.