While at the park with her four-year-old daughter years ago, Long Beach parent Katy Cable noticed her child had a rash all over her body.
“I took her to the doctor and he said, ‘Wow, this looks just like the measles,’” Cable said. “I said she had the vaccine and he said she might have gotten a strain of it or a reaction to it from the vaccine.”
Cable, whose daughter is now a senior at Wilson High, said she was alarmed by the experience, which made her think twice about the decision to immunize her daughter.
The vaccination debate is buzzing across California as Sacramento considers Senate Bill 277, which would end the personal belief exemption that currently allows parents to opt out of vaccinating their children.
The legislation is a response to the current measles outbreak that is taking place across the country. The disease was considered eliminated in the U.S. by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2000, but returned in large numbers last year.
According to the CDC, the U.S. had 644 reported cases of measles in 2014, the highest since 1977 and an enormous increase from the average of 88 cases a year between 2001-2013. California alone has reported 133 cases between December 2014 and March 14, 2015.
Dr. Lisa Nicholas, M.D. and MSPH, CEO of The Children’s Clinic in Long Beach, says that it is important to keep immunization levels up in order to protect those who are vulnerable to the disease. This group includes people who are undergoing cancer treatments, pregnant women, children too young to be vaccinated, and those with compromised immune systems.
“The less people who are immunized, the more of a risk of a large outbreak you have,” said Dr. Nicholas.
This is known as “herd immunity,” or the case where enough of a population is immunized to protect those who cannot get the vaccine. According to the federal government’s Healthy People program, around 90 percent of the population must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity for measles.
A recent local measles outbreak involved a student from California State University, Long Beach, who came back from winter break in January with the measles. The student, who has not been identified, has since recovered but exposed at least 20 other students. The California measles resurgence is also linked to an outbreak at Disneyland in mid-December.
According to Dr. Nicholas, measles is highly contagious and can lead to additional issues.
“[Victims] can have complications like pneumonia and could even have encephalitis, which is an infection of the brain that could lead to convulsions and mental retardation,” said Dr. Nicholas.
According to the CDC, children younger than 5 years and adults older than 20 years are most likely to have complications. Around one in 20 children with measles develop pneumonia, which is the leading cause of death from the disease.
Some parents see the new vaccination legislation as a sign of government overreach into public health.
“I think [SB 277 is] a terrible idea,” said Cable. “I think parents should be able to chose whatever they wish for their children. I think the minute we start imposing legislation on how to parent our children, we’re in trouble.”
The high levels of vaccination rates required for “herd immunity” makes other parents consider the larger community over individual viewpoints.
“It is not fair to jeopardize the health of other children because of one’s own personal beliefs,” said Long Beach parent Pat O’Brien. “There are a few unhealthy people that can not be immunized and it is our responsibility to protect these people too. This is not just a personal decision but a public health decision.”
An increasing number California doctors have begin turning away unvaccinated children because of the risk they pose to those who cannot get the MMR vaccine. Other physicians fear this policy will prevent parents who may be undecided about vaccinating their children from getting the information they need from a trusted medical professional.
SB277 would still allow an exemption for children who can’t get vaccinated due to medical reasons such as autoimmune disorders or allergies.
While parents opt to not vaccinate their children for many reasons, a prominent argument among the anti-vaccine camp is the proposed link between immunizations and autism.
However, Dr. Nicholas says that the link between autism and the MMR vaccine has been discredited. According to Dr. Nicholas, Andrew Wakefield, a former surgeon from Britain, first proposed the connection in his 1998 research paper.
“We explain (to parents) that the (vaccines and autism) research was proven to be false,” said Dr. Nicholas. “Dr. Wakefield was very much discredited for this and actually lost his license.”
Dr. Nicholas has collaborated on immunization campaigns with the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services.
“I think as a city we’ve been very focused on immunizing the kids in our community because we know how important that is,” she said. Her clinic also provides programs to pay for immunizations for low-income families.
Those opposed to SB 277 are not necessarily anti-vaccine, but may instead be opposed to new public health laws.
“I’m super torn because on the one hand I do believe in science and I do believe vaccinations are a good thing,” said Long Beach resident Alex Sciarra. “But at the same time I do think there needs to be a healthy skepticism of government.”
Though she had a scare when her daughter got a rash following the MMR vaccine, and opposes SB 277, Cable still believes parents should opt to their children immunized.
“I really do think that the dangers are far worse than the vaccine,” she said.