SACRAMENTO (AP) — Parents would have to take a trip to the doctor's office before opting out of vaccines if a bill approved by the state Assembly on a party line vote Thursday becomes law.
AB2109 would require parents who enroll unvaccinated students in public school to obtain a waiver from a physician saying that they had received information about the benefits and risks of immunization, and the public health consequences of opting out.
Parents considering skipping their children's shots need to understand the effect their decision could have "not only on their own children, but on the community," said the bill's author, Assemblyman Richard Pan.
"This is something that is extremely important to protect the public safety of our communities," added the Sacramento Democrat, who is also a pediatrician.
But several Republican lawmakers said the bill could shut children out of the classroom and would infringe on religious and parental rights.
"We've got enough of a nanny state as it is," said Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Marysville. "I think that this is putting somebody between the parents and their children."
Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, R-Fresno, objected that the bill would prevent Christian Scientists, who avoid doctors, from sending their children to public school.
The bill passed the Assembly 44-19, with Democrats supporting it and Republicans opposing it. It now moves to the Senate.
Vaccination rates have emerged as a major public health concern in recent years because of increasing opt-out rates and the reemergence of whooping cough and other infectious diseases in several states.
The U.S. government advises that by age 6, children should be vaccinated against 14 diseases. California is among 20 states that allow parents to forgo vaccines for their children because of personal beliefs and record numbers of families are opting-out, worrying public health workers who say that unvaccinated children endanger infants and people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
California allows parents to file two types of vaccine exemptions — a medical exemption and a personal belief exemption.
The medical exemption requires a doctor's signature and is typically reserved for children who cannot be vaccinated because of auto-immune disorders or allergies.
For a personal belief exemption, parents are not required to supply any information to explain their decision. The opt-out rate is higher than 5 percent in some parts of the state, including affluent coastal communities in Northern California.
The percentage of California parents signing personal beliefs vaccine exemptions has been rising steadily since 2004. Nearly 2.5 percent of kindergartners, or 11,000 students missed at least one vaccine in 2010.
That same year saw a deadly spike in whooping cough cases that killed 10 babies and sickened more than 9,100 people.
Physicians have been battling a growing belief among some parents that there is a link between vaccines and autism, a perception that persists even after researchers say one of the most publicized studies supporting the link was debunked.
Last year, a major multi-year safety review of vaccines found there is no link between vaccines and autism or diabetes. The study, by the National Academy of Sciences, found that the benefits outweigh the risks of vaccination, which are rare and can include fever-caused seizures and occasional brain inflammation.
The trend is not limited to California.
In some rural counties in northeast Washington, for example, vaccination opt-out rates are as high as 50 percent. A recent whooping cough outbreak in that state has prompted health officials to declare an epidemic and urge residents to get vaccinated.
During the floor debate Thursday in Sacramento, Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, said that parents should not always have the option of forgoing vaccines, even if they've spoken with a doctor.
"With respect to diseases that are potentially pandemic, you need to weigh personal belief with the safety of everyone else," he said. "This bill at least is a first step."