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A new skirmish in the California vaccination wars breaks out. Science will prevail

A new skirmish in the California vaccination wars breaks out. Science will prevail
Dr. Marti Baum, left, a pediatrician, joined others at the Capitol in Sacramento to urge lawmakers to approve a proposal to give state public health officials the power to decide which children can skip their shots before attending school. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

I thought the vaccination wars in California pretty much fizzled out in 2015 after we outlawed religious and “personal belief” exemptions for children whose parents don’t want to immunize them against diseases like pertussis, measles and mumps.

Silly me.

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Lack of faith in scientific consensus is a sad but permanent feature of our social media-driven world. Paranoia is an effective business model.

Parents who oppose vaccines are not stupid; in fact, they are often surprisingly well-educated, considering the pseudoscience and unfounded claims they are willing to embrace.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many have found a way around the law, which still allows for medically necessary exemptions.

They have turned to physicians willing to provide bogus medical exemptions, which is why Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician, is pushing for the passage of a law that would require health officials to sign off on medical exemptions to ensure their validity.

The law, co-sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, makes good sense.

Predictably, it has aroused a tremendous amount of anxiety among parents who believe their children have been “vaccine injured” or are “medically fragile,” or those who simply don’t think the government has the right to stick its nose into the patient-doctor relationship.

Carrying babies, pushing strollers, holding the hands of their youngsters, angry parents turned out by the hundreds in Sacramento on Wednesday at a Senate Health Committee hearing to protest the bill. One by one, for more than four hours, they stated their objections.

Some took a moment to vilify Pan, who also led the 2015 battle to end religious exemptions.

“They’re my kids, they’re not your guinea pigs,” said one father.

“Shame on you,” said a mom holding a “Pan lies” sign.

“You’re a tyrant,” said a man who described himself as the father of a “a healthy, fully unvaccinated child.”

“Sen. Pan, I believe you are committing crimes against humanity,” said a Bay Area mom.

Pan stood at a lectern, listening respectfully, as he was accused of violating the Nuremberg Code, the U.S. Constitution and of imperiling his mortal soul.

State Sen. Richard Pan speaks in support of his bill to tighten the process for medical vaccine exemptions Wednesday in Sacramento.
State Sen. Richard Pan speaks in support of his bill to tighten the process for medical vaccine exemptions Wednesday in Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

“I am a pediatrician. My job is to help children and protect children,” Pan told me Thursday morning, after his bill passed in committee on a party-line vote of 7 to 2. “I have tremendous sympathy for the parents there whose children may be suffering from something. If you have a loved one who is sick, you want to know what caused it.”

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Sometimes, there simply are no satisfying answers.

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Vaccination rates in California, thankfully, have gone up, in some cases dramatically, which shows the effectiveness of legislation like Pan’s. However, there are still pockets of resistance. As my colleague Soumya Karlamangla reported last July, in a big chunk of the state’s elementary schools, 90% or less of kindergartners had all their required shots. At 20 schools, more than a quarter of the children had medical exemptions, a statistical impossibility given that about 3% of the population may have a legitimate medical reason to forgo vaccines.

To prevent outbreaks of highly contagious illnesses like measles, epidemiologists say, 95% of children in a school should be immunized.

But where there is a will to avoid vaccines, parents have found a way.

One legislative staffer sent me screenshots of parents advising each other on where to find physicians willing to write the exemptions and how much they charge. (“The doctor I went to gives medical exemptions for eczema,” said one mom. “Paid upfront $285.”)

Last month, Voice of San Diego reported that a single physician has written one-third of all medical exemptions given in the San Diego Unified School District since 2015.

There are very good reasons for some children to avoid vaccines — a child with severe, life-threatening allergies, for example, or a child whose immune system is depressed by HIV/AIDS or chemotherapy.

The idea for Pan’s bill came from West Virginia, which has one of the most stringent vaccination policies in the country and has not had a confirmed measles case since 2009.

Imagine that: California, which is ranked the No. 1 state for public health, is using West Virginia, which is ranked 49th, as a role model.

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On Thursday morning, California public health officials announced that 38 cases of measles have been diagnosed this year, 15 of them in the last week, including at UCLA and Cal State L.A. That afternoon, UCLA officials announced that more than 100 students and staff members would be quarantined for at least a day.

Young adults who were not vaccinated as children may be at particular risk because they were too old to be affected by California’s 2015 law. Their parents were probably influenced by the discredited work of Andrew Wakefield, the British physician whose license to practice medicine was revoked after he alleged a link between vaccines and autism in the late 1990s.

Vaccines do not cause autism. This is a fact.

I expect to be deluged with responses from readers who believe otherwise. Yes, I know there is a vaccination court that pays money to people who can convince it that they have been injured by vaccines. Yes, I know you cannot sue pharmaceutical companies for harms you think are caused by vaccines. (That’s why the vaccine court was created; so lawsuits would not drive vaccine makers out of business, because vaccines are so important to our health. The court has not awarded a cent to anyone claiming that a vaccine caused autism.)

Yes, I know that a very small number of children have had adverse reactions to vaccines, some catastrophic.

Chelsea Lydell holds her son, Joseph, 4, as she joins hundreds of others waiting to get into a legislative committee to oppose Pan's proposal.
Chelsea Lydell holds her son, Joseph, 4, as she joins hundreds of others waiting to get into a legislative committee to oppose Pan's proposal. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

And yes, there still exists a kind of hysteria about vaccines among certain portions of the population, and this is why we are seeing a resurgence in diseases like measles, once believed to have been eradicated.

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Vaccines — cited by many scientists as a more important human advancement than antibiotics — are a victim of their own success.

More than one parent in Sacramento on Wednesday claimed to be the parent of “healthy, unvaccinated children.”

But that’s the thing.

You are healthy until you are not. If a child is not vaccinated and comes in contact with someone who has measles, or chickenpox or another preventable disease, that kid may get sick.

And perhaps the kid will transmit the disease to someone else’s child who cannot be vaccinated because he or she has cancer, takes immunosuppressant drugs or is severely allergic to vaccines. Even if you are willing to gamble on your own kid’s health, repugnant enough, you shouldn’t be able to gamble on the health of someone else’s child.

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