Immunizations have been a cornerstone of medical advancements in this century and have effectively eliminated the fear of death and permanent disability from diseases that once threatened communities not only here, but across the world.
Yet, even today — and here in California — the subject of whether to require mandatory immunizations of all schoolchildren creates great controversy.
On the one side, there are those who say vaccinations are absolutely necessary to ensure the health and safety not just of individual children but the public as well. Others say the decision to immunize should be at the discretion of the child’s parents so parental rights are upheld.
Both viewpoints have merit, and as a Fresno physician and the president of the Fresno Madera Medical Society, I welcome this dialogue and I trust a consensus will be forged in the best interest of all Californians. With nearly three decades as an allergist and immunologist and as the medical director of the Allergy Institute serving children and adults, I’ve had the opportunity to see first hand what immunizations have meant to my patients.
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Yet, I know the recent immunization discussions might not have surfaced to this level had it not been for the outbreak of a once-eradicated disease — measles — being discovered at Disneyland in December. The outbreak sickened 147 people in the U.S., including 131 in California. Because there hadn’t been a homegrown measles case in the U.S. for more than a decade, health experts believe the virus came from abroad where the disease is still common.
For years, the rates of unvaccinated children had been slowly rising as new parents chose to not immunize their children from diseases that have made a resurgence into our communities.
Last year, though, for the first time in a decade, the number of parents filing personal belief exemption forms to exempt their kindergarteners from vaccination actually declined. This was also the year that Assembly Bill 2109 became law. AB 2109 was sponsored by the California Medical Association and was authored by Sacramento pediatrician and state Sen. Richard Pan, M.D. It requires a parent or guardian seeking a personal belief exemption from school immunization requirements to first obtain a document signed by a licensed health care practitioner.
The plus to this is that the practitioner is asked to attest that the parent or guardian has been informed of the benefits and risks of the immunization, as well as the health risks of the diseases that a child could contract if left unvaccinated. Armed with this information, the parent or guardian is best able to make an informed decision.
But, the reason it was authored to begin with was because of a rising concern around the increase in personal belief exemptions in California and what that could mean for outbreaks of diseases like measles, mumps and pertussis (whooping cough).
Exposure to these diseases not only puts individual children at risk, but the community as a whole, including infants too young to be immunized. Reductions in personal belief exemptions lead to fewer preventable outbreaks and it is imperative for the health of our state that we continue in this direction.
Please join the dialogue to ensure that our children won’t have to see images of sick and disabled children who could have been kept healthy with vaccines. And, let’s protect children who are too young to be immunized, our seniors and people with compromised immune systems who are more susceptible to serious illnesses.
By working together to create the delicate balance necessary to ensure our families and our communities are healthy and protected, I know we will get to the best resolution.