Anti-vaccination parents showed up last week in Sacramento threatening to leave the public schools en masse, and the Senate Education Committee crumbled like a batch of overbaked cookies. Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), who has written legislation that would mandate vaccines for almost all public school students, was forced to take back his bill for revision.
"The penalty for not immunizing their kids is you either have to home-school or take your kids out of public schools, and I don't think that's a solution to the problem," committee Chairwoman Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) told Pan during last week's meeting. If that's so, why does California even bother to have the weak vaccination requirement that's already on the books? It's meaningless if the state folds as soon as parents object.
The alternative to Pan's bill is no solution at all. Under that scenario, parents would continue to claim a "personal belief" exemption to the state law requiring vaccinations and would continue to send their unvaccinated children to public schools. As a result, medically frail children — those who cannot physically tolerate vaccination and whose health and lives are threatened by diseases that had been eliminated 15 years ago — would have to be taken out of the school when outbreaks occur to protect them against those kids whose parents don't believe the science showing that childhood vaccines are safe and effective.
If parents don't believe the generally accepted facts on vaccinations, why should the rest of the world cater to them? Parents disagree with many public school requirements. Some hate the emphasis on standardized tests; some would rather have their children in single-sex classrooms. A student is not allowed to bring a gun to school even if his parents think it is necessary for his protection. Those parents must mull over their choices: Put up with the rules, or send their children elsewhere. Yet the Education Committee quailed at the thought of sending the same message to parents who balk at vaccinating.
Pan's bill would remove the personal-belief exemption from the existing vaccination requirement. There are a couple of minor adjustments he could make to his bill — such as taking Hepatitis B, which is not easily transmitted, off the list of required vaccinations. But his revisions should not open the door for public school students not to be vaccinated against highly contagious diseases.
Anti-vaccine parents are well-meaning and their fears are heartfelt, but their concerns aren't rooted in valid science. That's where the Legislature's job comes in: It must pass laws for the common good, based on facts. Legislators don't back off on combating global warming when climate skeptics protest. The science of immunization deserves equal respect. The committee should protect vulnerable children and the public at large, and pass the bill.