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California Pushes To End Vaccine Exemptions Amid Measles Outbreak

As the state is being rocked by its biggest measles outbreak in over a decade, lawmakers in California are looking to eliminate the state’s vaccine exemption.

“We shouldn’t wait for more children to sicken or die before we act,” state Sen. Richard Pan, who is also a pediatrician, said at a news conference on Wednesday. “Parents are letting us know our current laws are insufficient to protect their kids.”

Current California law requires students in public schools to be vaccinated against diseases such as measles, polio, chicken pox and hepatitis B. However, the law allow parents to have their children exempted for medical reasons, religious reasons or because of their “personal beliefs.”

Opting out has become increasingly popular, with exemption rates surpassing 3 percent in 2013 before falling slightly last year. In some schools, fewer than 90 percent of children are vaccinated, a threshold that means the unvaccinated are less likely to be protected by herd immunity.

Now that nearly 100 Californians have come down with measles in 2015, however, non-medical exemptions are under siege. Pan, along with fellow state Sen. Ben Allen, is introducing a bill to eliminate all vaccine exemptions except those obtained for medical reasons.

“The high number of unvaccinated students is jeopardizing public health not only in schools but in the broader community,” Allen said in a statement.

In addition to cutting down on what exemptions are allowed, Pan and Allen’s bill will also require schools to inform parents what their overall vaccination rate is.

In the past, Pan and Allen’s initiative might have been blocked by Gov. Jerry Brown, who in 2012 defended parental choice regarding vaccines. Now, however, Brown says he is open to reforming the state’s laws.

“[V]accinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit, and any bill that reaches his desk will be closely considered,” Brown press secretary Evan Westrup said in a statement released Wednesday evening. Brown’s shift of position is indicative of how the political winds have shifted as the measles outbreak spreads.

Currently, every state except Mississippi and West Virginia allows vaccine exemptions for religious reasons, and 20 states grant them for non-religious personal reasons as well. If California successfully becomes the third to eliminate non-medical exemptions, it could mark the beginning of a wave of measures reducing parental leeway on vaccines.

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