The vaccination debate has reached fever pitch. Legislation has passed in the state Senate that would do away with the “personal belief exemption” that allows parents in California to refuse to vaccinate their children. As it moves to the Assembly, opponents are ratcheting up their rhetoric, calling the bill a huge intrusion on their rights, and one that is written so broadly that even children with conditions that make vaccinations dangerous for them wouldn’t be entitled to exemptions.
The noise surrounding SB 277 is drowning out the truth, which is this: In general, parents have a right to make medical decisions for their children. But when it comes to communicable diseases, which can have devastating consequences on large groups of people, there also is a general societal right to protect public health.
That doesn’t necessarily mean vaccinating all children — but it does mean vaccinating enough of them to achieve so-called herd immunity, the level at which even children who are too medically fragile for vaccination, or whose bodies don’t respond to vaccination, are protected by the health of others. To achieve that, 90% to 95% of the school-age population must be vaccinated. In many areas of the state — Santa Monica is one example — the rates have fallen far below that level, at least partly because of parents’ fears that the vaccines will harm children, though many studies have found them to be generally safe and effective.
For all the outrage, SB 277 is a moderate measure — possibly too moderate. Medical exemptions would still be granted if parents obtain a doctor’s note saying that their child has a medical condition that makes vaccination unsafe, and naming the condition. The bill would not dictate which medical conditions are acceptable.
Many doctors won’t write such a note unless it’s warranted, but the state can expect a handful of physicians to make a cottage industry out of giving parents what they want. Only parents with strong objections to vaccination are likely to seek out such doctors, though; others will go ahead and vaccinate, which might be enough to bring vaccination rates to protective levels.
Nor are schools required under the bill to automatically reject students who aren’t fully vaccinated — though they must work with parents to get the immunizations completed. Children currently in elementary school would have until seventh grade to be completely immunized; students currently in higher grades would be allowed to complete their schooling without vaccination.
Californians shouldn’t let the rhetoric cloud the long-term goal: a population with strong protection from diseases that were once scourges. Society’s right to safeguard its health, especially that of its vulnerable children, trumps individual belief.