In politics and culture, California does not often align with Mississippi and West Virginia, but I feel proud to stand with those states in declaring solidarity on eliminating nonmedical vaccine exemptions.
Even before an extensive measles outbreak erupted from the so-called Happiest Place on Earth earlier this year, many states sought to tackle the issue of vaccination exemptions, and those attempts have only intensified since then. In California -- the epicenter of that outbreak -- the battle over S.B. 277 culminated in a victory for public health advocates over a small but vocal anti-vaccine contingent, including some noted celebrity opposition.
In California and everywhere else these battles have been waged, childhood vaccination should have been a motherhood-and-apple-pie issue, yet debate about requiring vaccines and removing personal and religious exemptions elicited visceral reactions from both sides of the ideological divide.
Surely, such heated discourse couldn't be focused solely on refuting the science and evidence behind immunizations. Even Jenny McCarthy has backpedaled somewhat from her earlier anti-vaccine statements that, arguably, set childhood immunization efforts back a decade. No, what this debate really boiled down to was the notion of preserving individual rights at the cost of placing others in harm's way.
Throughout its history and in virtually all areas of public discourse, our country has tried to carefully balance the needs of individuals against the greater societal good. Nowhere has this been more evident than in our protection of individuals' religious freedom. In this case, one of the primary arguments to remove religious exemptions to vaccines is completely consistent with this goal. After all, no major religion in the world (we're not talking about Scientology here) is against vaccination; we can rely on our pastors and priests, rabbis and imams to agree on this point.
So, we're back to personal freedom. The crux of anti-vaccine supporters' argument against removing the personal/philosophical exemption stems from a fear that the government is dictating -- and, thus, overruling parental control of -- children's health care matters. But consider this perspective: The California law allows an exception to the vaccine mandate for home-schooled children, which, in essence, preserves parents' right to decide whether their children will participate in a community-sponsored benefit or opt out of that process.
Moreover, this law continues to allow medical exemptions as determined by a physician, so we can and will continue to discuss this important issue with our patients. In fact, Gov. Jerry Brown cited the continuation of the medical exemption as the sole reason he signed this bill into law. To some, this clause may appear to allow a loophole for vaccine-hesitant parents to go doctor-shopping. And, no doubt, there still will be some physicians ready to cast doubt on the science of vaccines, but they will continue to be in the minority. Ultimately, the decision will be in the hands of the physician and the child's parents after an evidence-based discussion that takes place behind exam room doors.
One last thought: Perhaps sensing the inevitability of passing this legislation, opponents of the California bill vilified its primary author, Sen. Richard Pan, M.D., a practicing pediatrician -- and good friend -- who represents the state's 6th District. Fortunately, Dr. Pan wisely built a coalition of citizen groups and medical organizations -- including the California AFP -- that worked together to overcome this opposition. For those of you familiar with Sen. Pan, you know he has been a stalwart champion of primary care and public health, even winning CAFP's Champion of Family Medicine award in 2013.
My challenge to you, my fellow family physicians, is to take up this public health banner and run with it: no personal exemptions, no religious exemptions. Three states down, 47 to go.
Jack Chou, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.