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Winning the Vaccination War in California

OVER THE PAST HALF CENTURY VACCINATIONS HAVE nearly eradicated a number of infectious diseases, including polio, diphtheria, and measles in developed countries. But in the past decade some of these diseases have reappeared, particularly pertussis (whooping cough) and measles. In 2014, there were nearly 10,000 pertussis cases reported in California, more than had occurred in any year since 1947, and over 200 of the hospitalized patients were infants under four months of age. In December 2014, an outbreak of measles occurred at Disneyland in Southern California that spread across the state and nationally. The measles virus is extremely contagious and can lead to severe brain disease, seizures, ear or chest infections, and even death.

These outbreaks of disease have occurred primarily in regions of California where vaccination rates have fallen below the herd immunity level (the level of inoculation required to protect a population against a disease). In California and many other states as well, there has been an increase in the number of families that obtain a “personal belief” exemption permitting them to withhold their children from vaccination programs. The high number of these exemptions accounts for a rising incidence of diseases that strike children disproportionately and that are often severely injuring or even fatal. In the case of the Disneyland measles outbreak, for example, scientists from M.I.T. and the Boston Children’s Hospital who analyzed the data reported that vaccination rates for the exposed population had fallen to between 50 and 86 percent, far below the inoculation level of 95 to 99 percent that is needed for herd immunity.

Alarmed by this upsurge of vaccine-preventable diseases, a group of parents contacted state legislators about tightening up California’s vaccination requirements. State Senators Richard Pan and Ben Allen drafted SB 277, a bill that eliminates the personal belief exemption that allowed unvaccinated children to attend school. Since it is in a school environment that infectious illnesses are most commonly transmitted from one child to another, private as well as public schools fall within the scope of the bill. SB 277 still allows exemption from vaccination for a medical reason—a child’s allergy to a vaccine, for example—but exemption is no longer granted to families that object to vaccination on religious or philosophical grounds or because they believe it is unsafe.

From the moment that SB 277 was placed on the legislative calendar in February 2015, it encountered a storm of libertarian, religious, and legal objections. The debate lasted for over four months and received more media coverage than any other legislative conflict in recent history. Activists traveled to the state capitol in Sacramento in order to hold rallies, attend hearings, and meet with their representatives to discuss the alleged dangers of vaccination. Democrat Marc Levine, a member of the State Assembly, reported that his office was deluged by constituents wanting to weigh in on the issue. A single vote by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson in favor of SB 277 elicited thousands of Twitter comments.

The grassroots organizing done on both sides of this issue was extraordinary. Advocates for SB 277, no less than opponents of the bill, understood that they had to build a broad community of support if they were to carry the day. Framing the case for vaccination in an emotionally engaging as well as scientifically convincing way, they built an effective campaign to win hearts and minds. Their efforts were successful: Following dozens of hours of public hearings and impassioned public debate in which thousands of advocates and opponents participated, SB2 277 was passed in both the state Assembly and the Senate and then signed into law by Governor Brown on the last day of June.

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About Skeptic

CONFIDENCE SCAMS EXCERPT: The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for it Every Time; ARTICLES: America’s Stonehenge: Did Highly Developed Europeans Build a Sophisticated Astronomical and Religious Monument on the American East Coast More than 3000 Years Ago?; Is It ET?: Is Star KIC 8462852 a Sign of an Extraterrestrial Civilization?; Hurricane Strikes as Divine Retribution—An Empirical Test; Ruins of Empires: Thomas Jefferson, Constantin-Francois Volney, and the Separation of Church and State; Winning the Vaccination War in California; Prophet Without Honor: Francis Galton and the Birth of Behavioral Genetics; When Cops Kill: An Insider’s Perspective; Guns and Games: The Relationship Between Violent Video Games and Gun Crimes in America; More on Morals: On Science and Morality (1) Deontologists are Covert Consequentialists, (2) Expanding Science to Include Morals, (3) Clarifying Confusions; Alligators in the Sewers! COLUMNS: Who’s Crazy Now?: DSM-5 and the Classification of Mental Disorders; The Delicate Dilemma of Defining Rape; REVIEW: Red Team: How To Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy by Micah Zenko reviewed by David Priess; JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Haunted Houses; Earliest Ghost Stories; Ghostly Evolution