California is one of 20 states that allows parents to “opt out” of vaccines for their children simply by signing a form. It's called a "personal belief exemption." But AB 2109 would change that. The bill has cleared the Assembly and is starting its path through Senate committees.
If the bill becomes law, parents who wish to refuse vaccines would first need to receive counseling from a licensed health professional about the risks and benefits of skipping immunizations for their children.
Vaccination rates in California have been dropping in recent years, worrying public health officials. Ten infants died in a whooping cough outbreak in 2009.
"Democratic Assemblyman Richard Pan wrote the bill. He’s also a pediatrician and says parents’ decision not to vaccinate their own child puts others at risk too.
Very young children, infants may be too young to be immunized," he told me in a recent interview. "People with cancer and on chemotherapy, people with HIV or AIDS ... they cannot receive immunizations."
Republican Assemblyman Dan Logue co-chairs the Assembly’s Health Committee. He opposes the bill – but not for medical reasons.
“What we do now in California is we tell you how much salt to put on your food, what kind of light bulb you should screw in your lamp," he says. "The people of California are fed up with a state government that thinks it can run our lives better than they can, and enough is enough.”
But Pan counters the nanny-state argument. "This is not about taking away the rights of parents to make decisions. Parents are still free to make these decisions. But it's also the role of government to protect the public, that's why we have a police force, to protect us from criminals," he says. "We have diseases out there that can kill people ... and vaccinations are one of the most effective and cost-effective means of protecting the public from infectious disease."
Statewide, just slightly over 90 percent of all children entering kindergarten have received all required vaccinations, but that rate varies dramatically by county. Public health officials worry when the overall vaccination rate drops below 90 percent, but 95 percent is much better to protect everyone against measles -- which is highly contagious.
California counties with the lowest rates of vaccinations include Nevada, Mariposa, Tuolumne and Humboldt, all between 73 and 76 percent. Marin County's rate is just under 83 percent.
The bill is currently in the Senate Rules committee and is expected to be heard in the Senate Health committee in the next few weeks.