(Sept. 21 -- By the Editorial Board)
Before it even takes effect in January, a new law aimed at improving California's child vaccination rates has been undermined by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Assemblyman Richard Pan, a Sacramento pediatrician, championed Assembly Bill 2109 - modeled on Washington state's law - that would require parents seeking to opt out of vaccinations to have a health professional sign a form saying they were provided information about the risks and benefits of vaccinations.
Brown, however, in a signing statement, rewrote the law, saying that he would direct the California Department of Public Health to "allow for a separate religious exemption on the form" so that "people whose religious beliefs preclude vaccinations will not be required to seek a health care practitioner's signature."
This is a constitutional outrage and a public safety danger.
The four sponsors of the bill - the California Medical Association, California Immunization Coalition, Health Officers Association and American Academy of Pediatrics - strongly object. In a July 3 letter, they wrote, "There is no infringement of personal or religious freedom in simply receiving information on the risks and benefits of vaccination and acknowledging the receipt of that information."
In an October draft, the department went along with Brown's direction, creating a form with two boxes: personal beliefs exemption, requiring signature of a health practitioner, and religious beliefs exemption, not requiring a signature. This is unacceptable.
A Tuesday story, "Many parents opting out of vaccines" by The Sacramento Bee's Diana Lambert and Phillip Reese, captures the problem. California currently has a very loose "personal belief exemption" that allows parents to opt out, making California the "epicenter of vaccine refusal" in the United States.
All 50 states, including California, require children to be vaccinated against various childhood diseases. But vaccination works only if a critical mass of people are covered. Health officials worry when vaccination rates fall below 85 percent to 90 percent.
Statewide, more than 97 percent of parents vaccinate their children. That is true in our community, too. But we have significant pockets of vaccine refusal that place our entire community at risk, including babies and individuals who have compromised immune systems (such as people with cancer who are undergoing chemotherapy).
In our region, Waldorf schools, public and private, stand out for high levels of unvaccinated kindergartners: Cedar Springs Waldorf in Placerville (62 percent opt out), Camellia Waldorf in Sacramento (44 percent), Davis Waldorf (44 percent), Sacramento Waldorf (43 percent), Live Oak Waldorf (38 percent), Alice Birney Waldorf in Sacramento (33 percent) and the Golden Valley Waldorf-inspired Charter (32 percent).
A number of public charter schools also stand out: Community Outreach Academy in North Highlands, which caters to Russian and Slavic children (58 percent opt out) and several schools with roots in the home-school movement, such as Core Placer Charter in Colfax (50 percent), Horizon Charter in Lincoln (44 percent), Heritage Peak Charter in Rio Linda (32 percent).
Pan stands by his law, which requires any parent seeking an opt-out because immunizations are "contrary to his or her beliefs" to get a signature from a health practitioner. But Pan says he would be OK with the Washington state version of the form.
People with a "personal/philosophical exemption" or a "religious exemption" must get a signature from a health provider. But there's a third box for "religious membership exemption." Only those who attest that they are "a member of a church or religious body whose beliefs or teachings do not allow for medical treatment from a health care practitioner" - such as Christian Scientists - need no signature from a health practitioner.
The department, however, is keeping mum on a final form, saying through a spokeswoman on Friday only that "the form is currently being reviewed and finalized and will be available shortly." Californians should contact the department's Immunization Branch Chief Maria Volk at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is important. Kids without vaccinations aren't mere free-riders on community immunity; they can expose vulnerable populations to serious illness. Requiring health information has improved vaccination rates in Washington and, done right, can do so in California, too.