In the wake of the measles outbreak that started in Disneyland, more than 70 vaccine-related laws are being debated in state legislatures around the country.
With California Gov. Jerry Brown signing a bill Tuesday that removes most of the state's vaccination exemptions, the polarizing debate over whether parents should have the right to refuse vaccinations for their children has just gotten hotter.
For California parents the new law means vaccinate or home school. Opponents see mandatory vaccine laws as trampling parental authority.
“What goes into your child’s body—if you don’t have any other right in the world—you should have the right to determine what is injected into their bodies,” said Landee Martin, a mom from Newhall, California.
But for those who have experienced the consequences of a lax vaccine policy, there is no question that there is a need for laws like the one proposed in California.
Chris Loop’s child, Mobius, was one of those who was infected during the Disneyland outbreak, doesn’t see the issue as one of parental autonomy.
“We’re not talking about something like paper diapers versus cloth diapers or formula versus breast milk,” said Loop, a mom from Pasadena, California. “This is not a parenting decision that affects your child exclusively. It affects the lives of every other child and person your child comes in contact with.”
And that is the crux of the matter for experts like Dr. Mark Roberts, chair of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health Department of Health Policy and Management.
Universal vaccination produces “herd immunity,” which is what protects children who are too young or too sick to be immunized, Roberts explains. If the vast majority of children are vaccinated, the chances of an infant like Mobius Loop being exposed to a potentially devastating disease are very low.
Roberts and colleagues developed a computer program that shows graphically what happens in two measles scenarios: an 80 percent vaccination rate and a 95 percent vaccination rate. Users input their city and state and then watch as the virus spreads. The 80 percent scenario is pretty striking — and scary.
“The thing is,” Roberts said, “vaccinations protect the entire population, rather than just the people you’re giving them to.”
Still, some experts fear that the California bill, if it becomes law, will inflame not only those who are already strongly against vaccines, but also those who are currently on the fence about them.
“You’re balancing parental authority with the public good,” said Dr. Daniel Salmon, deputy director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I’m afraid if we go too far on the outside of the seesaw it may backfire.”
There’s no question of the government’s authority to mandate universal vaccinations, Salmon said. “But I’ve studied this for a long time and I’m really concerned this approach could do more harm than good. If we get rid of these non-medical exemptions we run the risk of a public backlash.”
Salmon would rather see legislation that made it much harder to gain a non-medical exemption rather than a “draconian law,” he said.
Dr. Marian Michaels isn’t worried about backlash.
Vaccines have saved many children’s lives, said Michaels, a professor of pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“There are just no two ways around it, the science is on the side of immunization,” she said. “We don’t have a choice of whether or not we put a seat belt on. And I think we’re at the point where we need to say you have to vaccinate your child. In an ideal world you would not have to make a law.”