New state vaccine law set to decrease local waivers

An immunization bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on June 30 is poised to make waves locally, since local elementary school districts have high rates of kindergarten vaccine waivers.

The new law will end exemptions from immunizations based on religious or personal reasons. In the Encinitas Union School District, 11.6 percent of kindergartners during the 2014-15 school year had personal-belief exemptions, dwarfing the statewide average of 2.5 percent. The rate was even higher at Cardiff Elementary at 19.8 percent, the only school with kindergartners in the Cardiff School District.

Senate Bill 277 was a response to health concerns over low vaccination rates in some communities, as well as a measles outbreak in December 2014 traced to Disneyland that spread to more than 150 people.

“I think the state’s making the right call on this one, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here,” said Encinitas Union School District Superintendent Tim Baird a few hours after the bill was signed into law.

Baird said there were greater numbers of kindergarten exemptions in recent years. But, he added, some of these students were vaccinated later in the year or in subsequent grades.

The district received passionate phone calls and emails from those for and against the bill, Baird stated.

Locally, the San Dieguito Union High School District voiced support for SB 277, and the Encinitas district and Cardiff district didn’t register a stance.

Olivenhain Pioneer had the highest rate of personal-belief exemptions among the Encinitas district’s nine schools during the 2014-15 school year, with waivers for 19 out of 122 kindergartners, or about 16 percent. At Cardiff Elementary, waivers were on file for 20 of the 101 kindergartners.

Starting in July 2016, students enrolling in public or private schools or daycare centers must be vaccinated against diseases like whooping cough and measles, unless they have allergies or other medical conditions that have been certified by a physician.

The bill lets children with exemptions on file remain in school, yet they must have proof of vaccinations when entering kindergarten or, if already in elementary school, in seventh grade.

In a signing statement, Brown acknowledged the “widespread interest and controversy” surrounding the bill, but said it’s important to protect community health.

“The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases,” Brown said. “While it’s true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.”

Brown added that SB 277 excuses children from vaccinations whenever a physician concludes there are “circumstances, including but not limited to, family medical history for which the physician does not recommend immunization.”

Jennifer Trevino, who has two children in the Cardiff School District, said she’s against SB 277, citing fears about children receiving too many vaccines at one time.

“Parents check what kind of chemicals are in sunscreens for their kids,” Trevino said. “Yet they don’t research the toxic stuff in vaccines.”

Trevino also stated that her family is considering moving from California because of the new law.

After the Disneyland outbreak, public health officials reiterated that vaccines are key for containing the re-emergence of measles, whooping cough and other diseases.

Dr. Mark Shalauta, a family medicine specialist at Scripps clinic in Rancho Bernardo, told the Encinitas Advocate in February that a high number of exemptions threaten “herd immunity,” which protects an entire population, particularly those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or infants too young for their first shots.

The threshold for herd immunity varies from disease to disease. For measles, experts say 92 percent to 95 percent of children need two doses of MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) to achieve herd immunity.

Shalauta said parents in favor of personal-belief exemptions often believe thoroughly debunked research connecting vaccines to autism. Or they have various unfounded views about vaccine safety, he said.

A separate California law that took effect last year aimed to reduce the number of personal-belief exemptions by requiring all parents seeking exemptions to first talk with a medical professional. Yet parents could still obtain a waiver on religious grounds without speaking with a healthcare provider, a provision only one Encinitas school district guardian cited during the 2014-15 school year.

While that legislation reduced the number of personal-belief exemptions across California, that wasn’t the case locally. During the 2013-14 school year, before the law took effect, the Encinitas school district’s exemption rate was 11.3 percent, 0.3 lower than 2014-15. Likewise, Cardiff Elementary’s rate was 17.4 percent in 2013-14 and jumped to 19.8 percent in 2014-15.

Some opponents of SB 277 have said they’re considering a legal challenge.