Imagine a California where polio becomes a threat to children’s health as it was before the 1950s, when first the Salk vaccine and later the even more effective Sabin formula threw this dreaded and crippling disease and all its iron lungs into dormancy.
Or a California where dozens of kids die every year from pertussis, better known as whooping cough for the gasping whoop children often make after their deep coughing. And more, like measles, mumps and rubella, to name a few.
This was the threat that faced California after Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012 attached a one-sentence signing message to a law that aimed to make it tougher for parents to evade getting their kids vaccinated.
Now a proposed referendum being circulated by anti-vaccination activists threatens to thrust the state back into those Dark Ages-style dangers.
Brown’s short message in 2012 called on state health officials to provide a religious exemption on a form allowing parents to opt out of vaccinations and still register them for public or private schools.
Checking the religious belief box allowed parents to claim their deep theological beliefs precluded vaccinations. Many with little religious belief lied when they took the checkoff. They either believed the widespread shibboleth that vaccinations are harmful or they were just plain lazy.
Within less than three years, there followed outbreaks of both measles and pertussis. There is no proven link between these bursts of previously inactive diseases to Brown’s personal belief box, found a Johns Hopkins University study of a 2010 pertussis epidemic in California. But the report showed a link between the location of cases and the areas where parents most actively sought previous, harder-to-get, religious exemptions.
Of course, no organized religion then or now, aside from the Black Muslim Nation of Islam, has opposed vaccination. The great preponderance of vaccination exemptions have come in wealthy coastal counties with virtually no Nation of Islam presence. So parents claiming a religious belief exemption must either have lied or possess a private religion.
All this caused Brown to reverse himself this year and OK a law allowing vaccination exemptions only for medical reasons. This law, effective with the start of the next school year, still doesn’t demand all children be vaccinated before kindergarten and seventh grade; parents can home school their kids if they don’t want them vaccinated.
The current referendum effort aims to put a measure on the November 2016 ballot and reverse the new law. Only two modern-era referendums have succeeded: one in 1982 canceling government approval of a “peripheral canal” project to bring Northern California river water to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, and one last year reversing state approval of an off-reservation Indian casino.
It’s telling that religion has barely been mentioned in public meetings around the state pushing the anti-vaxxers’ referendum. Most speakers describe the vaccination mandate as a “fundamental human rights issue.” As an example, they argued in one San Diego County meeting this summer that “the state wants to get between a parent and a child.”
The anti-vaxxers want to be free to leave their kids unprotected from potentially deadly diseases whose viral or bacterial causes are still present in the environment. They claim, for instance, that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine is linked to increased autism rates. This myth, originally published in a medical journal, was debunked long ago and later denounced by the authors of the flawed British study, who admit their research was faulty. But it persists, even getting a full airing on the syndicated talk show of former CBS News anchorwoman Katie Couric, who later apologized for that.
Essentially, parents who want to be free to keep their children unvaccinated and at risk for dangerous diseases would deny the freedom of other children with medical reasons that preclude vaccination to attend schools or enjoy theme parks and other public areas for fear of picking up disease from unvaccinated peers. It’s clear the belief of some parents in a discredited theory should not take precedence over the freedoms of other kids to live without fear of preventable diseases.
But this conflict will never be voiced by anti-vaxxers who formerly could take the religious exemption even when they had no religion.
Which makes it clear responsible Californians should refuse to sign the current referendum petitions when accosted outside supermarkets and big box stores by carriers being paid up to $9 for each signature they gather.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.