By Tom Elias
The last year saw no major outbreaks of measles or any of the other nine potentially fatal diseases against which California public schoolchildren must be vaccinated – one possible result of a 2016 law that eliminated a “personal belief” exemption that formerly allowed thousands of youngsters to attend school without vaccinations.
This “no news is good news” will see many parents drop off their kids with a new sense of security as schools open this fall.
There’s a good reason for their relief: Vaccination rates of 7th-graders reportedly reached record levels during the last school year, the first in which the new, stricter rules applied.
Seventh-graders can’t register for school unless they’ve had booster immunizations against tetanus (also called lockjaw), diphtheria and pertussis (better known as whooping cough).
And if they haven’t previously been vaccinated against another seven diseases (measles, bacterial meningitis, mumps, polio, rubella, hepatitis B and chicken pox), those 7th graders must get it done before their enrollments can proceed.
Now the state Department of Public Health reports that 7th-graders meeting school-entry vaccination requirements stood at 98.4 percent last spring, up 1.8 percent from three years earlier.
That 1.8 percent can make a big difference, especially for the small percentage of schoolchildren who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons like being immune-suppressed by drugs needed to keep organ transplants going. Only 0.4 percent of school pupils now get medical exemptions.
This leaves only about 1 percent of students unvaccinated for all other reasons, most of them the residue from the era when personal-belief exemptions were available to parents who dislike vaccinations.
Those kids are allowed to continue in school until 7th grade, when they must provide written evidence of vaccination. The unvaccinated are now a small enough portion of the school population to minimize chances for any new outbreaks of the targeted diseases.
The new law and the new emphasis on getting virtually all kids vaccinated stemmed from a 2014-15 outbreak of measles that struck some visitors to Disneyland and eventually infected 136 Californians, many of whom never visited the Orange County theme park but came into contact with people who did. Studies showed that no more than 86 percent of persons at Disneyland when the infections occurred had been vaccinated, not enough to ensure the safety of everyone there.
Because some folks probably lied to researchers, the actual vaccination rate may have been as low as 50 percent, reported the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In 2014, also, whooping cough was declared epidemic in California and listed as the cause of death of three infants too young for vaccination. They had likely been exposed to other children who were never vaccinated.
The new numbers and the relief they bring to parents who want certainty that their children are safe do not, however, mean that everyone who used the old personal belief exemption (essentially allowing anyone to claim – with no verification – a religious conviction against vaccinations) has now acquiesced.
Authorities estimate about half those who previously refused to vaccinate their children found other ways to preserve them in that status: vaccinations are not required for children being homeschooled, nor do families leaving the state need to comply. Precise numbers for these types of avoidance do not exist because California’s Department of Education doesn’t track either the number of homeschooled children or the number of parents migrating elsewhere for this reason.
But at least those kids won’t be carrying any of the once-dreaded diseases into the state’s schoolrooms, making those who do attend schools as safe as they’ve ever been.
None of this has come easily; opposition to vaccination remains and bogus negative medical studies on it abound. But several judges declined to issue injunctions against the law when they were sought by vaccination opponents and an effort to quality an anti-vaccination initiative for next year’s ballot has gone nowhere.
So it appears the vaccination law will survive indefinitely, making schools and all public venues significantly safer for children, seniors and the immune-suppressed for the foreseeable future.