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Laws Limiting Vaccine Exemptions Work

VaccineIt’s nice when a question can be resolved with objective numbers of unequivocal outcomes. Subjective outcomes give scientists a headache.

In this case we are talking about the effect of vaccine exemption laws on vaccine compliance rates. The question here is not the ethical one, the rights of parents to determine the fate of their children vs the right of the state to protect the health of children and the public health. I think the latter trumps the former, but some disagree.

Regardless of what you feel about the ethical question, we need to know if the laws we pass to achieve our goals actually work, or if they don’t work, or even have unintended consequences. Having an admirable goal is not enough; when you make actual decisions (practice decisions, policy decisions, healthcare decisions for you and for family) you want to know that those decisions are having the desired effect.

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The war in California over nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, part 2

The war in California over nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, part 2

Last week, in the run-up to the 4th of July holiday weekend, something happened that I truly never expected to see. SB 277 became law in the state of California when Governor Jerry Brown signed it. In a nutshell, beginning with the 2016-17 school year, the new law eliminates nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. When last I wrote about SB 277 for this blog three weeks ago, I explained why I thought it was unlikely that SB 277 would ever become law, so that California could join West Virginia and Mississippi as the only states that do not permit religious or personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates. Basically, it was because California is not Mississippi or West Virginia. It’s a hotbed of antivaccine activism. Although statewide vaccination rates are high, there are a number of areas where antivaccine and vaccine-averse parents have led to low vaccine uptake with resultant outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. Most recently, a large outbreak centered at Disneyland served as the catalyst that made it politically possible for a bill like SB 277 even to be seriously considered by the California legislature. Even so, given that California is home to a number of antivaccine celebrities such as Rob Schneider, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Maher, Charlie Sheen, Mayim Bialik, and Jim Carrey, antivaccine pediatricians such as “Dr. Jay” Gordon and “Dr. Bob” Sears, and many of the activists at the antivaccine crank blogs Age of Autism and The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, I was not optimistic.

I was mistaken in my pessimism, and I’m happy about that. I’m grateful to all those who didn’t see passing this law as an impossible task, such as Senators Richard Pan and Ben Allen, and who worked tirelessly to see it through, as some of our regular readers did. I was also pleasantly surprised that Governor Jerry Brown didn’t betray California children by watering down the bill with a signing statement, as he did three years ago when an earlier bill (AB 2109) was passed to make it more difficult for parents to obtain personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates.

So since SB 277 is law in California, what now?
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The war in California over nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates

The war in California over nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates

As I write this, I am currently at the Center for Inquiry (CFI) Reason for Change conference, where on Friday Steve, Harriet, and I did a panel on—what else?—alternative medicine and how it’s become “integrative medicine.” As a result, I’ve been very busy, which means that parts (but by no means all) of this post will look familiar to those of you who follow me at my not-so-super-secret other blog. However, it occurred to me after we did our panel discussion that there are important things happening in California that we’ve only barely touched on here on this blog. I’m referring, of course, to a bill (SB 277) that’s wending its way through the California legislature. SB 277, if passed, would eliminate nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. That’s not to say we haven’t discussed the issue of nonmedical exemptions, of which there are two types: religious and personal belief exemptions (PBEs), which can all be simply described as PBEs. Both Steve Novella and I have addressed them on SBM. For example, when an earlier bill (AB 2109) was passed that mandated that parents seeking PBEs consult with a physician or other listed health care professionals (which, unfortunately, included naturopaths) before a PBE would be granted, I documented how the antivaccine movement strenuously objected even to this minor tweak in the law that would make PBEs slightly more difficult to obtain. Unfortunately, even though, against all expectations, the bill passed, Governor Jerry Brown sabotaged it with a signing statement that betrayed California children by reinstating, in essence, religious exemptions. Specifically, Gov. Brown ordered the California Department of Public Health to include a check box on the form that parents could check to say they have religious objections to vaccines. Parents who checked that box could thus bypass even the anemic requirement to consult with a pediatrician before being granted a PBE.

The problem with nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates is that vaccine-averse and antivaccine parents tend to cluster mostly in areas where white, affluent people live, as demonstrated in California and my own state of Michigan. So, even though antivaccinationists frequently tout high statewide vaccination rates as evidence that the process for obtaining PBEs does not need to be tightened up, they are disingenuously using a straw man argument against vaccine mandates, because it’s the pockets of low vaccine uptake that compromise local herd immunity that are the problem. We see these in Oregon, California, Michigan, and many other states with PBEs, and we also know that ease of obtaining PBEs is correlated with more PBEs and more outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

All of this came to a head earlier this year with what is now known as the Disneyland measles outbreak, a large multistate outbreak originating at Disneyland and traced to unvaccinated children. This outbreak so shocked California that the unthinkable happened. The possibility of passing a law eliminating nonmedical exemptions to vaccine mandates, something virtually everyone would have considered as much a fantasy as many of the characters played by the recently deceased great Christopher Lee played during his career, suddenly became an attainable goal. Senators Richard Pan and Ben Allen introduced SB 277, which would eliminate the personal belief exemption for children attending state licensed schools, daycares, and nurseries in California.
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Measles gets a helping hand

In a recent post I shared a bit of my personal, near-death experience with measles during the US epidemic of 1989-1991. As I describe in that post, I contracted a very serious measles infection at the end of medical school, and was highly infectious when I interviewed for a residency position at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Like others my age who received an ineffective, killed measles vaccine between 1963 and 1967, I had not been adequately protected. The MMR vaccine was not yet available, and no boosters were recommended at the time. Unfortunately, though my measles titers (a test of immunity to measles) were checked when I entered medical school, the school’s student health department failed to notice or respond to the results – I was not immune and did not receive a booster dose at that time, as I should have. That mistake was huge, and could have cost me my life. It also caused me to potentially sicken many vulnerable children during my tour of the hospital, as well as others I may have inadvertently exposed during the window of communicability as I walked the streets of Seattle. The Department of Health had to be called to trace all of my steps and attempt to track down and protect any potential contacts.
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The problem of nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates

It’s that time of year again, namely flu vaccine time. My very own cancer institute will be offering the flu vaccine for its staff beginning October 1, and I plan on getting mine just as soon as I get back from the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress in Chicago early next week. In the meantime, it’s always great to read Mark Crislip’s take on the yearly flu vaccine kerfuffle, particularly this part:

I have little (actually none) respect for HCW’s [health care workers] who do not get vaccinated. We have a professional and moral obligation to place our patients first. I think those who do not get vaccinated, except for a minority with a valid allergy, are dumb asses.

Preach it, Dr. Crislip!

However, this time of year is also a vaccine time of year for another reason (well, actually it was about a month ago). That’s because in late August or early September, depending on your state, the little kiddies (and not-so-little kiddies) return to school and therefore have to be up to date on their required vaccines or face not being able to go to school. No wonder the antivaccine movement goes nuts this time of the year, given the double whammy of antivaccine parents trying to avoid vaccinating their children before going to school by hook or by crook and the yearly promotion of flu vaccines and mandates that health care workers get them. (For the record, my cancer center requires it, and if there’s one thing the administration of my hospital has done that I fully support it’s the yearly vaccine requirement. We’re a cancer hospital, fer cryin’ out loud, and we have lots of immunosuppressed patients that we take care of!) The only other time of year when antivaccinationists are even close to this actively ridiculous is every April, which is Autism Awareness Month, when they start trying to tar attempts to highlight autism and autism research with demands that antivaccine pseudoscience be thrown into the mix like the proverbial cow pie added to the apple pie.

Since Mark’s already covered the flu vaccine so well, let’s talk about the topic of nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. This topic came up when I noticed that the bloggers and denizens of that most wretched hive of antivaccine scum and quackery, Age of Autism, have swarmed over to a news story about how Washington State has made it harder for parents to obtain nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine requirements:
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California Bill AB 2109: The Antivaccine Movement Attacks School Vaccine Mandates Again

Of all the preventative treatments ever developed through science- and evidence-based medicine, vaccines have arguably saved more lives, prevented more illness and disability, and in general alleviated more suffering than any single class of treatments or preventative measures throughout history. Given the obvious and incredible success of vaccines at decreasing the incidence of infectious diseases that used to ravage populations, it seems incredible that there would be such a thing as an antivaccine movement, but there is. Indeed, when I first encountered antivaccine zealots on the Usenet newsgroup misc.health.alternative about ten or twelve years ago, as a physician I really had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that such people existed. No doubt the same is true of many physicians, who take the scientific evidence for the safety and efficacy for vaccines for granted. However, I am a cancer surgeon, and I do not treat children; so until I discovered antivaccine rhetoric on the Internet I was blissfully ignorant that such views even existed. Other health care professionals knew better. Pediatricians, nurses, and any health care professionals who deal with children and the issue of vaccinations know better, because they face antivaccine views on a daily basis. It is because of the incredible importance of vaccination and the danger to public health the antivaccine movement represents that we at Science-Based Medicine write so frequently about vaccines and the antiscientific, pseudoscientific, and misinformation-packed fear mongering about vaccines that is so prevalent today.

The success of vaccination campaigns has recently been endangered by a number of factors, in particular the antivaccine movement. Because of various groups opposed to vaccination, either for philosophical reasons or because they incorrectly believe that vaccines cause autism, neurodevelopmental disorders, sudden infant death syndrome, and autoimmune diseases, among others, one of the most potent tools for encouraging high rates of vaccine uptake, school vaccine mandates, have come under attack. Alternatively, increasing numbers of parents have taken advantage of religious or philosophical exemptions in order to avoid the requirement to have their children vaccinated prior to entry to school. As a result, of late some states with lax vaccination requirements have begun to try to tighten up requirement for non-medical vaccine exemptions. The arguments used by the antivaccine movement against such legislation are highly revealing about their mindset, in particular their attitude towards issues of informed consent, which I will discuss a bit. But first, here’s a little background.
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