By Tracy Seipel and Jessica Calefati, San Jose Mercury News (TNS)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Legislation aimed at reversing California’s liberal vaccine exemption law took a major step forward Wednesday in the state Senate, only a week after support for the bill seemed to be on shaky ground.
The dramatic 7-2 vote by the Senate Education Committee surprised some Capitol observers, as one East Bay Democrat, Loni Hancock, of Berkeley, switched sides and voted yes.
If the bill becomes law, California would become the third state after Mississippi and West Virginia to slam the door on any exemptions to vaccinations except those issued for medical reasons.
Until Wednesday, the pro-vaccine movement had appeared to be losing momentum after two other blue West Coast states, Oregon and Washington, shot down efforts to tighten vaccine laws in March.
Political experts say California’s effort is apparently more successful because the recent measles outbreak began in the Golden State — in Disneyland — in December. While the outbreak was declared over last week, state public health officials said it wouldn’t have happened if more people had been vaccinated.
“There’s nothing like the largest measles outbreak in the state to focus people’s attention on a contagious health issue,” said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.
The outbreak, agreed Jack Pitney, a politics and government professor at Claremont McKenna College, “really changed the public discussion about the entire issue.”
Pitney said Wednesday’s vote is a sign that the opponents “have a very difficult fight ahead of them. Public opinion has shifted, and people are becoming aware of the danger of vaccine refusal.”
In hearings in front of the Senate health and education committees, noisy opponents of the bill have greatly outnumbered outraged supporters. Those against the bill have decried the legislation, saying it forces them to either vaccinate their children or deny them a proper education.
Senate Bill 277 would repeal the state’s current personal belief exemption, as well as religious exemptions, and allow only vaccinated children to attend public and private schools. Medical exemptions still would be permitted, as they are in every state. The bill also would require schools to notify parents of immunization rates at their children’s schools.
The measure will next be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It must also pass Assembly committees and ultimately receive Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature before it could become law.
Brown’s carefully crafted public statements have clearly given pro-vaccine legislators the green light. Although the governor hasn’t said flatly that he will sign the bill, he has come close.
Evan Westrup, Brown’s spokesman, this week reiterated the governor’s belief that “vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit — and any bill that reaches his desk will be closely considered.
Many who oppose the bill are parents of children who say their children developed autism after receiving a measles, mumps and rubella shot.
Experts, however, say there is no scientific evidence linking autism with vaccines. On Tuesday, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study of 95,727 children who have older siblings. The study showed that the MMR vaccine was not associated with an increased risk of autism, regardless of whether the children had a higher genetic risk because their older siblings have the neurological affliction.
Tianna Howard, an Oakland mother of three who attended Wednesday’s hearing, said she was devastated by the committee’s decision. Speaking through tears with her 9-month-old daughter, Livi, in her arms, Howard promised that the fight against the measure will continue.
“No one is going away,” Howard said. “My doctors support whatever choice I make for my children. That’s my right.”
Corte Madera resident Carl Krawitt, whose 7-year-old son Rhett — a leukemia patient whose immune system was compromised at the time of the measles outbreak and could not be vaccinated — applauded Wednesday’s vote by the committee.
“If you don’t want to home-school, then vaccinate your child,” he said. “They have a choice — Rhett did not have a choice.”
Political analysts emphasized Wednesday that the battle isn’t over.
“Even though the bill’s chances are improving, the opponents of mandatory vaccination bring so much passion to the debate that it’s easy to see them frightening legislators out of supporting the bill,” Schnur said.
But that didn’t happen Wednesday, after the bill’s co-authors — Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica — agreed to amend the legislation to address concerns raised by Education Committee members at a hearing last week, when they asked to delay the vote. Members of the panel said they were concerned that the right of students to be free from illnesses at school had to be balanced by every student’s right to an education.
Pan, a pediatrician, and Allen tweaked the bill to allow families who choose not to immunize their children to participate in multiple-family private home schools instead of being home-schooled alone.
They also changed the bill to allow families who choose not to immunize their children to use an independent study program coordinated by public schools.
On Tuesday, SB 77 moves to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Four of the seven members of that panel are bill co-authors, and a fifth — Sen. Bill Monning, D-Monterey — has already voted in favor of it twice.
(c)2015 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: Grook Da Oger via Wikimedia Commons