Health Care

California’s Dangerous, Bipartisan Anti-Vaccine Movement

A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella virus (MMR) vaccine at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Wash., March 20, 2019. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)
Activists left and right are protesting an effort to close loopholes in a state law mandating vaccination for schoolchildren. Here’s why they’re wrong.

There aren’t many policy proposals or causes that unite Left and Right these days, but in California, one has emerged: opposition to Senate Bill 276, which aims to close loopholes in a state law mandating vaccination for schoolchildren. Liberal and conservative activists alike have protested the bill at the state capitol and demanded that state legislators scrap it.

Unfortunately, this particular bipartisan movement isn’t just wrong — it’s dangerously wrong.

California has been the epicenter for anti-vaccine sentiment, and measles outbreaks, for the last several years. That’s not a coincidence; the former fuels the latter. When “herd immunity” dips too low, the entire “herd” is placed at risk. Anti-vaccine activists often ask, “If vaccines work and you’re vaccinated, why do you care if I vaccinate my own kids?” The answer relates to the herd: vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective, and for those too young or medically fragile to vaccinate, a vaccine-preventable illness could be absolutely catastrophic. Whereas Jenny McCarthy’s healthy son has a decent chance at recovering from the measles without suffering permanent damage, his classmate with a heart condition or her newborn baby sister can’t say the same.

For liberal anti-vaxxers such as McCarthy, the issue is one of safety and science; they don’t believe in the safety of vaccines or in the science. Despite studies and testing galore, despite the fact that the only medical professionals (e.g. Dr. Bob Sears and Dr. Andrew Wakefield) questioning vaccines are so controversial they’re losing their medical licenses, no burden of proof can ever be met.

Conservatives opposed to the bill, meanwhile, view it as government overreach. To take but one example, on the conservative cable network OAN’s show, Tipping Point, host Liz Wheeler recently told the Daily Wire’s Elisha Krauss, “To me, this bill is all about government overreach. Government power in any aspect of my life scares me.”

The reality is that, since California passed more strict vaccine laws four years ago, anti-vaccine activists have been taking advantage of the laws’ loopholes, shopping for doctors who will give them a medical exemption from vaccination — and SB 276 was written to rein in the fraud. As BuzzFeed reports:

The bill aims to create that safer environment in several ways: Medical exemptions would be tracked in a state database, and public health officials would flag those that required review. That review would be done by a doctor or nurse working for the state, and it would begin whenever a school’s immunization rate drops below 95%, a school fails to report its immunization rate, or one doctor writes five or more exemptions in a year.

Decisions by the state’s health department would be appealable to an independent panel of physicians, who would consider whether the doctor who signed off on the medical exemption was acting reasonably to protect a child’s health and safety.

The bill also gives the California Medical Board new power to investigate doctors who are unethically gaming the medical exemption system. Pan pointed to doctors advertised as “vaccine friendly” online and offering medical exemptions for a fee.

Those doctors are a minority, but they’re capable of doing outsize damage, Pan added. In San Diego, one doctor was responsible for a third of medical exemptions, the Voice of San Diego found. Five doctors, several of whom had been singled out on social media by parents as “vaccine flexible,” signed more than half of the medical exemptions at Bay Area schools, the Mercury News reported.

These rules are in place only for children attending schools in California. Parents who wish not to vaccinate their kids are still free to make that choice; they just have to homeschool, because the law doesn’t entitle them to inflict the consequences of their child’s lack of vaccination on the child’s classmates. Nobody is going around San Francisco or Hollywood door-to-door with a vial and syringe, inoculating people against their will as, say, an unvaccinated child roaming around Disneyland could be infecting others with highly contagious diseases against their will.

Parents aren’t the only adults endangering children here, of course. A handful of doctors have betrayed their oath in order to make a quick buck, advertising their signature on a medical exemption like a commodity. They have sold out on their integrity by exploiting a loophole that is increasingly placing the most vulnerable Californians at risk.

While conservatives are understandably in favor of small government, we must also understand what duties are in fact within even a small government’s proper purview. Public health is among the most important of those duties, especially for children entrusted to the government’s care in public schools. If we all agree that getting drunk should be allowed by law but driving drunk should not, we must also all agree that refusing to vaccinate your kids should be allowed by law but sending them to school unvaccinated should not. Your right to engage in dangerous behavior ends when it endangers others.

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