Why did Gov. Jerry Brown bother signing a law to encourage childhood vaccinations if his immediate intent was to undermine it?
With rising numbers of parents succumbing to discredited fears that childhood inoculations cause autism, AB 2109 was supposed to tighten the state's lax rules that allow parents to exempt their children from vaccinations based on "personal belief." Under the law, parents could still send their children to public school without the vaccinations, but first they would have to submit a form signed by a health professional showing that they had been informed about the risks and benefits of immunization. Brown signed the bill last year.
But even as he signed it, Brown said he would instruct the state Department of Public Health to include a new exemption on the form for religious beliefs. If parents checked that box, they could avoid the vaccinations without the medical visit.
That would render the law meaningless. Personal belief, religious belief — what's the difference? If Brown has his way, an exemption will remain and children will not get the vaccinations they need. The health agency, which is expected to produce the final version of the vaccination form this month, should resist Brown on this change.
We don't say that lightly. Ordinarily, individuals ought to have the right to make their own medical decisions without required information sessions. We oppose laws in other states that deny a woman an abortion until she has heard what amounts to an antiabortion spiel. But unlike decisions about abortion, refusing vaccinations affects the health not just of the individual but of the community at large. Vaccination rates must reach about 90% or more to keep community illness at bay and protect those who can't stave off serious illnesses through vaccination. There are, for instance, some children who don't receive immunity through vaccination and others who have medical conditions that preclude being inoculated.
Overall, more than 95% of the state's children receive their vaccinations, but those numbers are far lower in certain areas — especially in rural counties — and in certain schools. An article last month in the journal Pediatrics concluded that such clusters of unvaccinated children appeared to be among the causes of a 2010 epidemic of whooping cough in California that killed 10 babies.
One major reason parents don't vaccinate their children is that it is a bother to do so. Checking a box that says they refuse because of religious belief, even if it's untrue, is a lot easier than making an appointment at a doctor's office. AB 2109 might not change parents' beliefs, but properly implemented, it at least would ensure that children aren't left unvaccinated because of parental inertia.