Following the measles outbreak earlier this year that originated at Disneyland and infected 183 people and the passage of California’s tough new vaccination law, California has become ground zero for a national debate about vaccinations. At the center of the debate is whether mandatory inoculations should be required for all children before they start school, no matter what the personal beliefs of parents.
To better understand the issue from the perspective of vaccine skeptics, I spoke with a group of mothers in San Fernando Valley, who are opposed to mandatory vaccinations, and who haven’t vaccinated their own kids, agreed to meet.
But they had one condition before we sat down to talk- they didn’t want their identities revealed. Lauren, a younger mother of two small children, who set-up the meeting with me said the issue was just too sensitive.
“I mean even from mom to mom, telling another mom friend that you don’t vaccinate your children is scary,” said Lauren. “That mom might feel that your child is a danger to your child.”
Lauren and other mothers in the group said they’re committed to keeping their children unvaccinated. That’s despite a new California law, SB277, that eliminates the state’s vaccination personal belief exemption. Beginning next year, parents of incoming kindergarten and 7th grade students will need to show proof that their children have been vaccinated to enroll in both public and private schools. The only way out of the new rule is if parents receive a medical dispensation from a doctor.
Another anti-vaccine mother named Kristen said the coming vaccination requirements are pretty much all she thinks about. “This is what I go to sleep thinking about, said Kristen. This is what I wake up thinking about. This is what I think about on the commute to work. This is what I talk about when I get to work. It’s all consuming.”
Supporters of vaccinations say that as the numbers of unvaccinated children has crept up in recent years and concerns about the spread of communicable diseases have grown, ending the personal belief exemption and requiring vaccinations are good ideas.
“We do believe having as many people immunized against these vaccine preventable diseases is good for everyone,” said Dr. Kimberly Uyeda. She directs the student medical services division of the Los Angeles Unified School District and agreed to meet me at a campus-based health clinic as children were getting inoculations for the new school year.
The LAUSD requires a minimum of ten vaccinations for students. That’s for everything from polio to whooping cough to chicken pox. Other school districts, though, can require many additional vaccinations against other illnesses.
“Vaccinations are a wonderful public health tool because they not only protect the individuals but in high enough levels of vaccination coverage, they protect everyone,” said Dr. Uyeda. “We call it “herd immunity,” normally if somewhere between 90 and 95 percent of the population has a vaccine, everybody in that community is protected, whether or not you have the vaccine or not.”
But vaccine skeptics, sometimes called anti-vaxxers, insist that the benefits of vaccinations are too often exaggerated and their possible dangers minimized. They say many vaccines are recommended because of the clout of the drug industry industry looking for new markets.
Some, such as Lauren, said they don’t believe a lot of the research proving the effectiveness and safety of vaccinations and say they’ve done their own research. “I have run my own statistical analysis with CDC data,” said Lauren. “For us, we have found that statistically it would be better for us not to vaccinate.”
The vaccination dispute has also turned Lauren and the other mothers into freshly minted political activists. They’ve joined an effort to try to qualify an initiative for next year’s California ballot that would repeal California’s new vaccination law and allow parents to keep on using the personal belief exemption.
When I asked Lauren about she thinks about the majority of parents who are pro-vaccination and who feel unvaccinated children could pose a threat to their own kids’ health, she says she understands their concerns, but maintains that the choice of whether to vaccinate or not should be left in the hands of parents.
California’s new vaccination law does give parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children the option of homeschooling, but for many, this is not an option. Kristen, whose son is still a couple of years away from attending school, said she’s already thinking about moving out of the state if her choices are vaccination or homeschooling.
If these mothers are successful in helping to put a measure on the California ballot, it’s voters who will have to decide whether concerns about protecting public health should outweigh what some parents see as an infringement on their ability to decide what’s right and wrong for their children.