If there’s one California hero during this year of America’s most virulent measles outbreak in several decades, it is state Sen. Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat and the only pediatrician in the state Legislature. He’s a doctor bent on saving lives.
A Pan-inspired law that already aims to make vaccinations against diseases like measles, whooping cough and polio nearly universal in this state has likely saved California from a far worse measles epidemic than it otherwise might have had.
But a potential obstacle has now emerged to Pan’s newest effort: Gov. Gavin Newsom implied this month he might veto Pan’s current attempt to close a loophole in his previous bill. “I don’t want someone that the governor… appointed to make a decision for me and my family,” Newsom said. “I back immunizations. However, I do have concerns about a bureaucrat making a decision that is very personal.”
Newsom seemed to imply it’s OK for parents to deal with crooked doctors writing medical waivers willy-nilly, often for $300 or so. He sounded a bit like former Gov. Jerry Brown once did in vetoing an early effort to eliminate parents’ right to say their religions forbid vaccinations — even when they had no religion. Brown later recanted after a large measles outbreak, signing Pan’s current ban on religious exemptions.
At one point this spring, more than 950 measles cases were reported nationally, 40 in California. The state number is the highest since the 1990s, with the year only half gone, but it’s far less than the 10 percent or so of cases nationwide that California’s populace would expect without Pan’s 2015 law, eventually signed by Brown.
Under that law, only medical reasons can exempt public school pupils from meeting vaccination requirements before they register at various grade levels.
This law has held down the measles outbreak, but the pesky medical exemption loophole remains. A network of anti-vaccination activists now informs parents about doctors willing to sign medical waivers, some not even examining the children involved.
Such signatures are concentrated among relatively few physicians, some of whom believe the widespread, unproven calumny that vaccinations will cause autism and other negative consequences for children.
Never mind the deaths and brain damage that measles and other preventable diseases definitely do cause. Back in 1963, among 50,000 measles patients in this country, more than 400 died, with about 1,000 suffering brain damage.
This means parents who try to exempt their kids from vaccinations are not merely making personal choices, but put at serious risk other kids who legitimately cannot be vaccinated safely, as with organ transplant patients.
Pan seeks to close the existing loophole by requiring the state health department — the bureaucrats Newsom deplores — to vet all medical exemptions signed by doctors. This would create a database revealing which doctors grant large numbers of exemptions. The Voice of San Diego news website reported this year that one physician signed almost one-third of all waivers in the 130,000-student San Diego Unified district.
Critics of Pan’s new bill, SB 276, worry that breaches of state computers could result in wide publication of children’s medical histories. And it’s true that California hospitals have suffered data burglaries, some with loss of patient privacy.
That risk, though, is vastly outweighed by the possibility of a far more serious epidemic than California has recently experienced. And there have been other outbreaks in recent years. As recently as 2010, California saw 9,120 cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis. Ten infants too young to be vaccinated died, with the disease spreading mainly in places where relatively low percentages of kids were inoculated.
Should a similar number of measles cases break out here, consequences could be even more deadly, and much more long-lasting because of brain damage caused by that disease.
What happens where laws are not as tight as California’s now are, and far less stringent than what Pan seeks? In Europe last year, 83,000 persons caught measles and 72 died.
No one can quarrel with the massively pernicious potential of the diseases involved. So parents who continue defying vaccination rules are committing one of the ultimate acts of selfishness. Newsom should overcome his qualms and help rid California of the current loophole.