Sometimes there are miracles in medicine. One of the most eagerly anticipated announcements in medical history was made 60 years ago last Sunday. The world learned that a vaccine for polio developed by a young scientist named Jonas Salk was safe and effective.
Back then, the entire country knew all too well the crippling and potentially fatal effects of polio because they knew perfectly healthy children who suddenly were not. Because of the vaccine, few people have now seen an iron lung, and we certainty aren’t confronted with children and young adults with twisted legs or those who are permanently confined to braces or wheelchairs as a result of the disease. Every year, polio paralyzed more than 35,000 Americans, and it was terrifying.
So, 60 years ago, our country couldn’t have imagined the need for a new California law to increase vaccination like the one we are proposing. We want to close the loophole in law, called the personal belief exemption that allows parents to opt out of the legal requirement that children be vaccinated to attend school.
We each bring our own unique personal perspective to this issue, but our reasons for authoring are the same — we want to save lives.
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I (Dr. Richard Pan) am a pediatrician who has witnessed first-hand how vaccines keep children safe from disease and out of the hospital. I attended medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, where Salk invented the polio vaccine. In 1991, I was working in Philadelphia when measles spread through a group of unvaccinated children into the general community. That outbreak infected over 900 people and killed nine children. For me, it was profoundly impactful because those children didn’t need to die.
I (Ben Allen) was the board president of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, when parents anxiously approached me. They continue to be concerned that growing numbers of unvaccinated students are putting their own children at dreadful risk. I understand that fear. My own father had polio as a child, and I know it to be a debilitating disease.
It has been said that vaccines are victims of their own success. For decades, parents haven’t seen these diseases, and we hear all the time from those opposed to our bill that vaccine-preventable diseases are “no big deal” and getting infections such as measles should be a normal part of childhood.
The hesitation on the part of a growing number of parents stems from misinformation such as the now retracted 1998 study that falsified data to purport a link between autism and vaccines. At the time, people didn’t know that the author, Andrew Wakefield, was lying.
Numerous subsequent studies worldwide involving hundreds of thousands of children have proved that vaccines are safe and do not cause autism. Also, further investigation showed that Wakefield was paid more than $674,000 by a product liability attorney to falsify his data.
However, the damage was done. To this day, some companies, and even a few physicians, profit by selling books and products that hype the risk of vaccines and minimize the risk of infection. The ironic truth is that they have gotten away with it for so long because vaccines work and enough people have already been vaccinated to keep diseases at bay. Unfortunately, as the number of unvaccinated people increases, diseases are returning.
For example, in 2010, there were 9,120 cases of pertussis reported in California — more than any year since 1947. Ten babies died as a result of that outbreak. Measles infections have risen from 37 in 2004 to 644 infections in 2014; and this year, there was the outbreak that began at Disneyland, which has infected 147 people in the United States. Children who cannot be vaccinated because they are too young or are being treated for cancer or other conditions that suppress the immune symptoms depend on high vaccination rates. Parents now fear going to schools, stores, public transit, theme parks, and other public areas, just as they did more than 60 years ago before the polio vaccine.
We respect the very personal decisions that parents have to make for their children. But all children deserve to be safe at school, and the personal belief exemption is now endangering the public. Senate Bill 277 will not remove a parent’s choice to vaccinate his or her child. However, choice brings with it responsibility, and under the measure, parents who decide not to vaccinate will have to home-school their children.
We are the lucky ones. We have inherited the benefits of vaccines that protect our children from the suffering inflicted by polio, measles and pertussis. Thanks to vaccines, the truly horrific natures of these diseases are no longer in our collective consciousness. We are authoring SB 277 so they will never be there again.