What do California, West Virginia and Mississippi have in common?

Jerry brown

Governor Jerry Brown signs the vaccine bill into law in California.

I’m off in the wilds of Idaho this week. So, I have to keep this post short because I am fending off moose and elk as we speak.  But, I could not let this news pass without giving it a shout out.

As of June 30, 2015, California became the 3rd state to ban all personal (and religious) belief exemptions to mandatory vaccine laws. In doing so it joins West Virginia and Mississippi as being one of this small group of states with tough vaccine laws.  And public health nerds like me are celebrating.

First, let me be clear about what this law does and does not do. It does not require a child with a known medical contraindication from being forced to have a vaccine. The law specifically allows a physician to provide an exemption for children who — in the physician’s medical opinion — vaccines are not considered safe and are contraindicated.  So if you child already has a known contraindication (allergies, etc) to a vaccine, then your child can still go to public or private school even if they are not immunized. After all, the purpose of this law is to protect kids, not make them sick.

Here is what else this law does not do. It does not take away a parent’s right to believe that vaccines are not safe.  It does not force a parent who adamantly believes that vaccines are terrible and toxic and full of whatever else to inject their child with the vaccines (even though medical and scientific professionals would TOTALLY disagree with this parent).  This law does not forbid a family from practicing their religion if, according to them, their religion prohibits vaccines (most do not).  No. All this law does is forbid that child from attending a public or private school in California.  If you home school your kids, the state is not going to require you to vaccinate.  And if your child attends an online educational program, there is also no vaccination requirement.  So, if — in the face of scientific, medical and even the acceptance of vaccines by nearly all religions — you still feel that vaccines are bad news, you can skip them. What this law does is prevent a parent from potentially exposing hundreds of other children to disease by sending their unvaccinated kid into the classroom.

And one other thing — this law does not require that all children who are already attending school based on a personal belief exemption today be vaccinated immediately in order to return back to school in the fall. Rather, the law allows these kids to stay unvaccinated, and in school, until they reach the next “grade span.”  So, if before January 1, 2016 a rising first-grader is already admitted under a personal or religious belief exemption, they can continue in school until they reach 7th grade.  You can check out the “grade spans” here.   I’m not so sure I agree with this provision (that is a lot of unvaccinated years in there) but it is what it is.

So what is next?  One, we may see an uptick in the number of attorneys who suddenly dislike vaccines and who see potential money-maker in challenging this law.  (I can talk about attorneys all I want — I am one, remember!).  I think such challenges will be largely unsuccessful.  And there may be a small subset of physicians who are willing to claim a medical contraindication where none exists. I do NOT mean that a doctor will lie, but rather, may claim a contraindication (vaccines cause autism) that does not exist.  It is unclear to me how the state is going to regulate which kinds of physicians can claim these exemptions, and for what reasons.  And finally, there may be some more parents who choose to home school.  And that is ok with me.

Public health prevails in California!

Now back to those moose and elk for me.

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