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PD Editorial: Add accountability to vaccine medical exemptions

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As kids have headed back to school this month, some remain at needless risk of illness because too many parents refuse to vaccinate their children. Lawmakers could have helped matters by passing a vaccination bill in time for the start of the school year. They didn’t. Now the harder deadline of the end of the legislative session approaches.

A small percentage of students have a genuine medical reason not to get vaccinated or are unlucky and some vaccines don’t work for them. Those young people rely on “herd immunity,” the idea that if enough people are vaccinated, deadly diseases like measles can’t spread very far.

When parents choose not to vaccinate their children, they reduce that herd immunity. They risk the health of their own and other people’s kids.

A few years ago, lawmakers cracked down on most exemptions that allowed parents to forgo vaccinating their children. A medical exemption remains, however, for obvious reasons. What was not expected was that so many parents would exploit it by finding compliant doctors who hand out medical exemptions like lollipops after an office visit.

The problem is similar to the way things used to be when California allowed medical cannabis but not recreational. It wasn’t hard to find a doctor willing to write a prescription if you had “back pain.” Now, parents who have bought into the discredited claims that vaccines are dangerous go to the right doctors to get a vaccine exemption for their kids.

The bill lawmakers are considering — SB 276 — would make that harder. If a doctor gave five or more exemptions in a year or a school had less than a 95% immunization rate, state health officials could take a look at the exemptions and make sure they are legitimate.

Opponents believe that vaccines are bad, and they’re passionate about it. They have descended on the Capitol with celebrity supporters in tow to fight the bill. Some lawmakers have received death threats.

Let us be perfectly clear here. These parents don’t want the state to close a loophole that allows doctors to lie — or at least not press for the truth — so that parents can choose not to do what is in the best health interest of their children and the community. Improperly handing out exemptions is already wrong and arguably illegal. SB 276 would just add accountability.

The North Bay is on the front lines of this fight. Four Sonoma County schools — Sebastopol Independent Charter, Sunridge Charter, Live Oak Charter and Summerfield Waldorf School & Farm — have some of the lowest kindergarten vaccination rates in the entire state. Meanwhile, according to news accounts, the Medical Board of California is investigating two physicians from Santa Rosa for issuing questionable medical exemptions.

The current version of the bill doesn’t go far enough. The state Senate passed a tougher version that would authorize review of all exemptions, but an Assembly committee watered it down under pressure from Gov. Gavin Newsom. That weaker version still languishes in committee.

SB 276 should wind up on the governor’s desk before the legislative session ends on Sept. 13. If it doesn’t lawmakers will have failed California’s children.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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