As the new school year begins, parents have reason to worry about what their kids may be exposed to in the classroom. Despite an overall increase in kindergarten vaccination rates to 95.6% since 2015, when the Legislature stopped allowing public school students to skip their shots simply because of their “personal beliefs,” a Los Angeles Times analysis found that at nearly 750 California schools, most of them charter or private schools, 90% or fewer of the kindergartners had their full course of vaccinations against diseases such as measles, polio, and whooping cough. The optimal rate for preventing a measles outbreak is 95%.
Some gaps are unavoidable over the next few years because the law, SB 277, isn’t retroactive. Students with a personal belief exemption obtained before 2016 won’t be required to get vaccinated until seventh grade. And eliminating personal belief exemptions led more kids to seek “medical” exemptions from a physician on the grounds that they were unusually susceptible to harm from the shots.
But the holes in coverage revealed by The Times suggest there’s something more troubling going on. For example, 40% of students at one small school in Sebastopol, Calif., obtained medical exemptions, and it strains credulity that they all have conditions that make vaccination dangerous for them. At another Sonoma County school, only one-third of the students are fully vaccinated either because they have medical exemptions or carried over a personal belief exemption obtained before 2016. Numbers like these have prompted concerns among health officials that some doctors are helping parents with pseudo-scientific fears about vaccines circumvent the law.
This is unacceptable. Schools with vaccination rates this low are putting their students at risk. And any doctor helping parents get around vaccination requirements is endangering public health by helping to create pockets of resistance to vaccination in their communities. Worse still, a third of the schools with low rates are in crowded Los Angeles County. Parents can find out if their schools are on the problem list at https://spreadsheets.latimes.com/vaccination-rates-1617/. But all should ask their school administrators whether steps are being taken to make sure their kids aren’t being exposed.