California vaccine law opponents: passionate, persistent and science-averse

Two children hold up homemade protest signs last week at a rally against legislation that would strengthen California's vaccination mandate. On Monday, state lawmakers sent the bill to Gov. Jerry Brown for approval.

Two children hold up homemade protest signs last week at a rally against legislation that would strengthen California’s vaccination mandate. On Monday, state lawmakers sent the bill to Gov. Jerry Brown for approval.

(Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

Despite all the noise around mandating vaccinations for schoolchildren, most California adults -- some 67%, according to a recent poll -- think it’s a good idea.

We will soon know whether Gov. Jerry Brown agrees. On Monday, the Legislature sent him a bill that would end the personal belief exemption, a routinely abused loophole that has seriously eroded the immunization rates in many of California’s school districts. Children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons would be allowed to attend school.

Even if Brown signs the bill, you can bet the kicking and screaming on the other side will not stop. This week, opponents have launched a ferocious social media campaign directed at him, using the hashtag #HearUs.


They are vowing to sue to halt implementation of the law, arguing that it would violate California’s constitutional provision that guarantees the right to a free and appropriate education. Children who are not vaccinated would have to be homeschooled, and that, they argue, is not an option for most families.

I can understand that argument, even if I disagree with it.

But until you witness the anger and mistrust that is driving this small but vocal group, it’s hard to grasp the intensity.

Over the last few months, as the battle over SB 277 has raged, things have sometimes gotten ugly.

In Sacramento, two pro-vaccine lobbyists were stalked and harassed. Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan, the bill’s co-author, has been threatened. A recall effort against him has been launched.

Vaccine opponents reject the idea that the legislators, pediatricians and education professionals who support mandatory vaccines for most children sincerely believe they are acting in the best interest of children and their communities, or that the science is on the side of vaccine proponents.

You will hear the argument that vaccine manufacturers have legislators in the palm of their hands, that requiring vaccines is the corrupt result of a system awash in money from Big Pharma.

It has also become apparent to me, after listening to many parents who oppose some or all vaccines, that they believe they know more about how disease is spread than epidemiologists and experts who study these issues for a living.

For instance, last Thursday, after the California Assembly passed the measure, one opponent of the measure, a father who says his 6-year-old son was paralyzed by a neurological disorder called Transverse myelitis after receiving vaccinations when he was 17 months old, minimized the recent measles outbreak at Disneyland, which infected 134 people before it was contained.

“What happened?” asked Josh Coleman, whose son Otto sat in a wheelchair while his father spoke. “At the second-busiest business on the planet, with the most contagious disease on the planet, 134 people got a rash, some got a fever. No one died. ... That incident is proof there is no problem whatsoever, and that we have this thing completely under control.”

But that’s not quite true. Of the 110 Californians who contracted measles in that outbreak, 17 were hospitalized, according to the CDC. About half were unvaccinated, including 12 infants and 28 people who skipped immunizations due to personal beliefs.

On Monday, Pan, who is a pediatrician, told his Senate colleagues that in the recent measles outbreak, an infected person had visited a maternity ward, endangering newborns and others. And my colleague Rong-Gong Lin II wrote last week about a rare, but always fatal, complication from measles that surfaces years after the infection.

Another speaker at Thursday’s anti-vaccine law rally was Laura Hayes, a leader in the movement. Her rhetoric, the sincerity of which I don’t doubt for a moment, is some of the harshest and most misleading that I have heard.

“Once you allow vaccines in, you can’t get them back out,” said Hayes, who says her three children all suffered vaccine-related injuries. “A cataclysmic series of events begin, which manifest themselves over the course of the child’s lifetime. Might be a fever and inconsolable crying today. Seizures next week. Autism and a life-threatening peanut allergy by age 2. Tourette’s and gut dysbiosis by age 5. Type 1 diabetes at age 10. Special ed and no diploma of any sort at age 22. Joblessness, nowhere to go, nothing productive to do through middle age and institutionalization and victimization until they die.”

(Here is a straightforward discussion of potential adverse reactions to vaccines, from the CDC.)

In a move that is truly cynical, those who oppose mandatory vaccines have also promulgated the thoroughly discredited argument that the MMR vaccine, for measles, mumps and rubella, induces autism in African American boys.

Officials of the Nation of Islam, citing the truly appalling historical antecedent of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, are now on the anti-vaccine bandwagon.

“This is a fight for us that is really just begun,” Nation of Islam Minister Keith Muhammed of Oakland told the crowd Thursday. “This issue is becoming part of the platform of the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March scheduled for Oct. 10, 2015. ... Our youth must be protected. By any means necessary. We will not obey any legislation which hurts our children.”

Given the gigantic gulf between the two sides in this debate, argument seems almost pointless. You either believe that vaccines are so important to public health that children must have them in order to attend school.

Or you don’t.

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT