California, Minnesota Pushing to Decrease Vaccine Opt Outs


Carl Krawitt, a Marin County, California father, has watched his son, now 6, battle leukemia for 4 1/2 years, including his many rounds of chemotherapy. Last year he completed chemotherapy treatments and is now in remission, says Lisa Aliferis of NPR. And with all that behind them, Rhett's parents now are extremely concerned about another serious threat – measles.

Since Rhett cannot be vaccinated due to his compromised immune system, which is in the process of rebuilding itself, he is depending on the people around him to protect him from the disease. That power — other people's immunizations protecting those who cannot be vaccinated — is known as herd immunity.

The fact that Rhett lives in a county that has the dubious honor of having the most "personal belief exemptions" in the Bay Area and among the highest in the state, does not help. The 6.45% of children who have a personal belief exemption in Marin County are allowed to be unvaccinated against measles, polio, whooping cough, and more.

Mr. Krawitt is highly emotional about this loophole.

"If you choose not to immunize your own child and your own child dies because they get measles, OK, that's your responsibility, that's your choice. But if your child gets sick and gets my child sick and my child dies, then … your action has harmed my child."

Krawitt is taking the situation into his own hands. His son's school has a 7% personal belief exemption rate compared to the statewide average of 2.5%. With the help of the school and the school nurse, he is making sure that all the children in his son's class are immunized.

Also, Krawitt and his wife have emailed the district's superintendent and asked that the district "require immunization as a condition of attendance, with the only exception being those who cannot medically be vaccinated." During the current outbreak of measles, students at Huntington Beach High School in Orange Beach who were not vaccinated were asked to stay at home for three weeks after a student contacted measles.

Marin County health officer Matt Willis said that keeping unvaccinated students home when there is no confirmed case in their school becomes partly a legal question. Rhett's oncologist, Dr. Robert Goldsby of the University of California, San Francisco, said:

"When your immune system isn't working as well, it allows many different infections to be worse," Goldsby said. "It's not just Rhett. There are hundreds of other kids in the Bay Area that are going through cancer therapy, and it's not fair to them. They can't get immunized; they have to rely on their friends and colleagues and community to help protect them."

In Rhett's class, all students have been vaccinated except three. One is Rhett, one is a child who is medically fragile, and one is a child whose allergies make vaccinating a risk.

The New York Times' Tamar Lewin writes that Willis feels he has to balance the rights to freedom of choice for parents with his responsibility to control communicable diseases. At this time, the line between the two is whether or not there is a case in the school.

Because some parents are resistant to vaccinating their children, there has been a reintroduction of childhood diseases that were thought to have been eradicated. Last year the CDC reported 644 cases of measles from 27 states, the highest number since 2000. This could be the reason why vaccination rates in Marin County have risen 20% from 2012 to 2014. Also, since January 2014, California parents can have a "personal belief exemption" only if they a signed authorization from a doctor.

Soon, Minnesota parents may be required to talk to a doctor about the risks and benefits of immunizations before they will be allowed to opt out of mandatory vaccinations, reports David Montgomery of the Pioneer Press. Rep. Mike Freiberg (DFL-Golden Valley) made the proposal because of the amount of "misinformation" about the dangerous properties of vaccinations. In his state, 7% of kindergartners and 3% of seventh-graders have not been vaccinated. Less than half of students who are unvaccinated are so because of conscientious objection. A small number of students have medical exemptions, but the majority of students are not being vaccinated with no explanation being given as to why.

The CDC says vaccination can cause side effects for some people, but it condemns myths and misconceptions which sometimes stem from coincidences when children suffer illness unrelated to the injection shortly after they are vaccinated. Freiberg notes that the benefit of "herd immunity" is one reason he has sponsored the bill.

Catherine Richert, reporting for Minnesota Public Radio, along with the Associated Press, writes that a University of Minnesota student was diagnosed with measles after traveling abroad. His case does not seem to be connected to the more than 60 people who were diagnosed with measles after trips to Disneyland in California. Frieberg said that Minnesota has a broad range of vaccine exemption policies related to religious and philosophical beliefs.

"Some states like Washington, which have had high exemption rates historically, have followed this approach [consulting a doctor before opting out] and it's helped reduce the spread of vaccine preventable diseases."

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