Why not vaccinate children

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The expected outcome of a legislative battle being waged in Sacramento this month will please most Petalumans, though it is sure to disappoint the minority of residents here who prefer not to vaccinate their children. The issue: how to properly safeguard Californians from contracting diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, chicken pox, diphtheria, polio and hepatitis B. The new law being debated is aimed at preventing a very small number of unscrupulous physicians from being paid to illegitimately exempt children from getting the required vaccines before attending public school.

Thanks to widespread use of vaccines since the 1960s, measles was officially “eliminated” in the United States in 2000. This represented a major medical milestone for the country, according to Sonoma County Public Health Officer Celeste Philip. For several decades, public health experts nationwide, including epidemiologists with the Centers for Disease Control, agreed that in order to control the spread of diseases such as measles, at least 95% of the population should be vaccinated to provide so-called “herd immunity.” This practice ensures that a well inoculated community will be able to protect the very few of its members who can’t be vaccinated due to underlying medical conditions afflicting less than 1% of the population.

But when a fraudulent paper was published by a British physician in 1998 wrongly linking vaccines to autism, it caught fire on social media and was further promoted by ill-informed celebrities like actresses Jenny McCarthy and, more recently, Jessica Biel. The ensuing public fear led to a plunge in vaccination rates which resulted in several measles outbreaks, including a 2014 occurrence in Disneyland that infected 131 people.

In response, California passed a new law in 2015 which eliminated non-medical vaccine exemptions, such as for religious or personal reasons, and statewide immunization rates again began to climb. Unfortunately, so did the number of medical exemptions being reported by schools which have quadrupled since 2015.

Last year, when several schools in Sonoma County, including Live Oak Charter School in Petaluma, reported extraordinarily high medical exemptions, school officials began to suspect something was terribly wrong. If less than 1% of students could legitimately be exempted from getting vaccines due to medical reasons, why were 57 % of students entering Live Oak Charter School granted medical exemptions?

As it turned out, a single physician in Santa Rosa, Dr. Ron Kennedy, was found to be granting the vast majority of those medical exemptions to students attending charter schools primarily in western and southern Sonoma County. A complaint was subsequently filed one year ago with the California Medical Board by a legal firm representing Sonoma County’s school districts who suspected that Dr. Kennedy was granting blanket exemptions to students of “anti-vax” parents, whose children lacked any underlying medical conditions that would legitimately warrant such exemptions. The matter is now in court.

I called Dr. Kennedy to get his take on the issue, but he never responded. However, I did find an online video of him being interviewed by a sympathizer in which he openly acknowledges being approached by a patient a few years ago who did not want his children vaccinated. Kennedy subsequently wrote an exemption and said that after that, “with no advertising … and by word of mouth, many, many patients came to me.” He thus became Sonoma County’s go-to doc for vaccine medical exemptions.

According to Petaluma’s Assemblyman Marc Levine, SB 276 is aimed at preventing such “doctor shopping,” which he says undermines the intent of the 2015 law requiring children to be vaccinated against diseases before entering school.

“There is a small community of doctors signing exemptions for children to avoid being vaccinated,” Levine told me last week. The new law would close the loophole that allows these doctors to write exemptions without legitimate medical reasons. SB 276 directs state health officials to review any child’s medical exemption if they attend a school or day care center with immunization rates of less than 95%. Officials would also scrutinize doctors who grant five or more exemptions in a year.

This all comes as good news to Petaluma City Schools Superintendent Gary Callahan who told me last week that the school district wants all kids to be “healthy and happy” at school.

“Our concern has always been that doctors should not be abusing the medical exemption process,” said Callahan.

While it might be easy for some to demonize the anti-vax parents, it’s important to understand that they are being driven primarily by fear and misinformation. Vaccines have been proven to be safe and under the new law legitimate exceptions will continue to be granted for those very few children for whom they present a health threat.

According to County Public Health Officer Philip, more than 1,000 measles cases have been reported in the U.S. this year, making it the worst year for the disease since 1992. “Many people” she said, “do not know how seriously life-threatening these diseases can be. Most people think it’s a myth that there is a virus (polio) that can render people unable to walk, but it’s true.”

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com)

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