The Mercury News

California’s kindergarten vaccination rates hit new high

April 12, 2017
By Tracy Seipel

Vaccinations among California’s kindergartners have soared to their highest rate ever recorded, less than a year after a controversial state law started requiring every child to get their shots to attend school.

The new figures released Wednesday show 95.6 percent of kindergartners have received all their vaccinations — a jump of nearly 3 percentage points from the previous school year before California enacted one of the country’s strictest vaccine laws.

“It is gratifying to see that in the course of just one school year, more children and the public at large are now more fully protected from preventable diseases,” said Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, who co-authored Senate Bill 277, which fueled one of Sacramento’s most vitriolic legislative debates in years.

Parents, public health advocates and educators packed hearings, with supporters calling for lawmakers to eliminate the so-called personal belief exemptions for parents who didn’t want to vaccinate their kids. Opponents, however, say the state violated students’ rights to an education and parents’ rights to make medical decisions for their children.

The data from the California Department of Public Health is based on results of the annual immunization assessment of children attending kindergarten in California in the current school year. The state began collecting the data in the 2001-02 school year when the rate was 90.9 percent.

Many vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles, can easily spread in school settings, said the state’s public health officer Dr. Karen Smith. “Getting all recommended immunizations on time is one of the most important things parents can do to keep our children healthy and in school.”

SB 277 wasn’t the only reason officials say the vaccine rates improved. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law in 2015, but it didn’t kick into gear until the current school year, making California one of only three states — along with Mississippi and West Virginia — that permit only medical exemptions as legitimate reasons to sidestep vaccinations.

Also influencing the soaring vaccination numbers, according to the state:

  • Increased public awareness about the importance of immunizations in recent years after highly visible measles and whooping cough outbreaks.
  • Efforts by the state and local public health departments, schools and community organizations to support school immunization requirements.
  • State audits of local schools in 2016 and 2017 to ensure they were complying with immunization laws.

“The goal of SB 277 was to make schools safer from disease, and this data suggests that it helped achieve that,’’ said Dorit Reiss, a professor and vaccine law expert at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

The law still allows doctors to issue permanent medical exemptions for students who cannot receive vaccines for health reasons. The report noted a rise in those exemptions — from 0.2 percent to .05 percent in 2016-17. But overall, it was not as high as Reiss had expected, “though I would like to see the county level data, to know if there’s a pattern of abuse that will need to be addressed. Strong school immunization requirements work.‘’

Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, a pediatrician and co-author of the law, was under fire during the heated debate over the legislation, but he said the new figures are the “first step toward reducing the number of un-immunized people putting our families at risk for preventable diseases.”

Leah Russin, a Palo Alto mother and co-founder of Vaccinate California, also was encouraged.

“We are confident overall vaccination rates will continue increasing as parents protect their children and communities, making our state more resilient to preventable disease outbreak,” she said in a statement.

But opposition to the law remains, and many parents have decided to home-school their children instead of getting vaccines, which they believe are unsafe — despite repeated studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have concluded otherwise.

Tami, a mother of three children — one of whom is in elementary school in Santa Cruz County — said the reason she opposes the law is because her first child had serious reactions to her shots at age 6, 9 and 12 months. It was horrible,” recalled Tami, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she feared public backlash over her position.

She said if the trend shows the number of kindergartners have increased, it’s because of prior law Assembly Bill 2109.

That law required parents and a licensed health care practitioner to sign a form before a child could be exempted from getting required vaccinations because of personal beliefs, and exemptions dropped around the state. Personal belief exemptions are still valid for students who attended multiyear kindergarten programs before 2016, but the rates have dropped from 2.4 percent to 0.6 percent.

“Families I know have left and are leaving the state or home schooling their children,’’ said Tami, whose first-grade daughter is grandfathered into the law until she reaches seventh grade.

State public health officials cautioned that despite statewide improvements in vaccination rates, schools and communities with low vaccination rates remain at risk for outbreaks.

They said about 18 percent of California schools reported that fewer than 95 percent of their kindergartners have had at least two doses of measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

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