California lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a bill that would require schoolchildren in the state to be vaccinated, amid impassioned pleas from doctors and parents, including the activist Robert Kennedy Jr.
Under the proposal, parents would no longer be able to send unvaccinated children to school with waivers for religious or personal beliefs. Exemptions would be available only for children with health problems.
Supporters say the measure would increase the number of vaccinated young people and improve public health.
Ariel Loop told lawmakers that such a plan could have prevented her child from contracting measles at Disneyland, in an outbreak that began there in December. "My infant shouldn't have had to suffer," she said. "He shouldn't, still months later, be having complications with his eyes. I shouldn't have had to fear for his life."
Opponents, however, claim that vaccines can be dangerous and that the bill would trample parental rights. Karen Kain said her daughter died of injuries from a mercury-tainted vaccine. "I stand here today before you to share my story so you can all see and hear what happens when vaccines go wrong," she said. "Who gets to make the choice now of whose babies are more important? Because there is risk, there must be choice."
The measure, SB-277 from Sen. Richard Pan, was in the earliest stages of the legislative process. Still, it drew large crowds, including parents who brought their children. During the emotionally charged hearing, one opponent threatened to put a curse on lawmakers who voted for the bill, and another woman was removed after an outburst.
The bill passed out of the Senate Health Committee on a 6-2 vote Wednesday.
"I've personally witnessed the suffering caused by vaccine-preventable diseases, and all children deserve to be safe at school," said Pan, who is also a pediatrician, in a press release. “The personal belief exemption is now putting other schoolchildren and people in our community in danger.”
If the bill is passed by the legislature and is signed by the governor, California would join Mississippi and West Virginia as the only states with such strict vaccine rules. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California is among 20 states that allow for exemptions on the basis of personal belief. Forty-eight states allow religious exemptions.
Efforts in other states to end personal belief exemptions were proposed after the Disneyland outbreak, which sickened more than 100 people in the U.S. and Mexico. In Oregon and Washington, such proposals were recently rejected.
Opponents include Robert Kennedy Jr., a nephew of President John F. Kennedy and a son of former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Robert Kennedy Jr. has been promoting the film "Trace Amounts" and is the editor of the book "Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak," which links autism to thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative previously common in vaccines. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the chemical has been not been used in routine childhood vaccines since 2001.
At a rally ahead of Wednesday's legislative hearing, Kennedy said that he had all six of his children vaccinated but that he remains concerned the pharmaceutical industry profits immensely when governments make vaccines mandatory.
Dean Blumberg, a pediatrician who testified on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the California Medical Association, said childhood vaccination has been so successful that it's easy to overstate their risks and dismiss the diseases they prevent.
"Unfortunately, there's much misinformation about vaccine safety and effectiveness," he said. "Let me be clear. There is no scientific controversy about vaccine safety and vaccine effectiveness ... This is not open to dispute among mainstream doctors and scientists."
Public health officials believe an immunization rate of at least 90 percent is critical to minimizing the potential for a disease outbreak. California's kindergartners met that threshold at the start of this school year, according to state statistics: 2 percent were exempted because of their parents' personal beliefs, and an additional half a percent were exempted because of their parents' religion.
Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000 after years of intensive childhood vaccine efforts. But in 2014, the U.S. recorded the most cases it has had in two decades.
There is no specific treatment for measles, and most people recover within several weeks. But in malnourished or otherwise vulnerable children and people with reduced immunity, measles can cause serious complications, including blindness, encephalitis, severe diarrhea, ear infection and pneumonia.