California Assembly Votes to End Personal Belief Exemption for Vaccines

A dose of measles vaccine.  ( Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The state Assembly Thursday voted 46-30 to end California's personal belief exemption for vaccinating schoolchildren. The bill, SB277, now goes back to the Senate for a vote before it can be sent to the governor.

The law would allows kids with existing personal belief exemptions to continue in school until their next "grade span." That means those families can still rely on their exemptions until either entering preschool, kindergarten or seventh grade. Medical exemptions would also still be allowed.

The law, if signed, would go into effect Jan. 1, 2016. Starting July 1, 2016, students would need vaccinations to attend school.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a position on the bill, but as noted on KQED’s California Politics Podcast last week, some Capitol observers think the fact that his cabinet secretary, Dana Williamson, testified in support of SB277 at the Assembly’s Health Committee hearing was an indication of which way the wind is blowing, even though Williamson emphasized she was speaking on her own behalf.

NPR is reporting that a spokesman for Brown said via email that the governor "believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit and any bill that reaches his desk will be closely considered."

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One option for those opposing the bill, if it's signed, would be to try to undo it through a referendum. But that's easier said than done ...

State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a physician and co-author of the bill, lauded its passage. "Many of my colleagues have been under a lot of pressure because of the vociferousness of the opposition," he told KQED's April Dembosky. "But when you look at the science and the facts, it's very clear this bill is what we need to do to make sure we protect our communities, protect our children from communicable disease."

The debate over the bill became a major battleground in the ongoing conflict between those who urge everyone to get vaccinated -- a group that includes the scientific and medical community -- and those who think the decision should remain personal. Many in that category believe vaccines are responsible for the rising autism rate, a proposition that has never been proved but remains an article of faith among some in the anti-vaccine movement.

The legislation gained steam in the wake of the measles outbreak that started in Disneyland last December and spread to at least half a dozen additional states. A total of 117 cases were associated with the outbreak, which was declared over on April 17 of this year.

Ninety percent of parents in California vaccinate their children, but there are pockets in the state where the rate of opting out is high. Marin County, for example, has the highest rate of personal belief exemptions in the Bay Area and among the highest in the state. Last school year, 6.45 percent of Marin’s kindergartners went unvaccinated by invoking it.

One Marin family who had no choice but to leave their child unvaccinated during the measles scare is the Krawitts. Their 6-year-old son, Rhett, was in remission from leukemia, but his immune system was still too weak to tolerate vaccination; he had to rely on herd immunity, a state of protection for even unvaccinated individuals resulting from immunization by enough of the surrounding population. After Carl Krawitt spoke out against those who voluntarily opt out of vaccination, Rhett became a sort of poster child for people with compromised immune systems put at greater risk from a decrease in the vaccination rate.

Yesterday in Sacramento, Rhett delivered a petition to the governor, with more than 32,000 signatures, in support of SB277.

April Dembosky and Lisa Aliferis contributed to this post.