In May, Kern County health officials warned people who ate in a Bakersfield fast food restaurant that they may have been exposed to the measles by an infected person who was traveling through Kern County.
About two months later, it happened again. People who visited a prominent Bakersfield hotel were told they may have been exposed to the measles by an infected person during the Fourth of July holiday.
What’s the big deal? Measles is just a common kids’ disease, you may think. Well, think again. Before the measles vaccine was widely distributed, the disease hospitalized around 48,000 people and killed about 400 to 500 in the U.S. every year. Worldwide, about 110,000 people died of measles in 2017.
Measles is a big deal and parents who refuse to immunize their children from the measles and other “childhood diseases” are endangering everyone’s health – in Kern County, California and across the nation.
A bill pending in the Legislature will target doctors, who are helping parents skirt state immunization laws. Some unethical doctors even are selling “medical exemptions” for up to $1,200. Sponsored by Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician, SB 276 should be passed and signed by the governor.
Most deaths from measles are caused by complications that include blindness; encephalitis, which is an infection that causes brain swelling; severe diarrhea; dehydration; ear infections; and respiratory infections, such as pneumonia. Very young children, the elderly and people with suppressed immune systems, such as those undergoing chemotherapy, are particularly vulnerable.
The development of immunizations has greatly reduced the incidence of measles and eradicated a number of deadly diseases. But an increasing number of people are believing disproven stories – some being fanned by foreign internet trolls – that link vaccinations to such conditions as autism. This fear and the refusal to immunize children are endangering the “herd” immunity that protects us.
For a variety of medical reasons, some people cannot be vaccinated. However, if vaccination rates remain above 95 percent, a “herd protection” exists that blocks outbreaks. But as more parents refuse to vaccinate their children, that protection disappears.
While all 50 states require children to be vaccinated before being admitted to public schools, California, Mississippi and West Virginia have eliminated religious and “personal” exemptions. In varying degrees, the remaining states allow parents to refuse to immunize their children on the basis of their personal or religious beliefs.
In 2015, after an outbreak of Disneyland-linked measles, then-Assemblyman Pan successfully passed legislation ending personal and religious exemptions in California. As a result, the number of “medical” exemptions spiked.
Pan’s bill targeting medical exemptions would require the California Department of Public Health to review vaccine exemptions if a single school has an immunization rate below 95 percent – the “herd” threshold – or if a doctor issues more than five exemptions in a year.
While the statewide immunization rate is above 95 percent, there are many “pockets” – public, private and charter schools – that have rates much lower than that. And those could be “the tinder that starts the fire” and spreads disease throughout the state, Pan says.
The California Medical Board has tried to punish unethical doctors, who are suspected of operating medical exemption mills. But enforcement has been blocked by parents, who refuse to release their children’s medical records to be used as evidence.
Pan, whose bill will require all parents applying for medical exemptions to agree in advance to have applications and medical records reviewed by state health officials, said SB 276 will prevent parents from working “in cahoots with the doctor who is engaging in unethical behavior.”
If a medical condition truly requires a child to be exempted from vaccinations, Pan’s bill and a review by state health officials will not block the request. If anti-vaxer parents are simply using medical exemptions to circumvent a law that protects us from serious diseases, the complicit doctors will be detected and punished.