SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - California lawmakers voted on Thursday to substantially limit vaccine exemptions for school children in the most populous U.S. state, an initiative prompted by last year’s measles outbreak at Disneyland that sickened more than 100 people.
The bill, which would make California the third state to eliminate religious and other personal vaccine exemptions, passed the state Assembly in a form that would give some parents years to comply, compared with a stronger version of the bill that was earlier approved by the state Senate.
The measure sparked angry opposition from parents who fear side effects from vaccinations as well as from some religious conservatives.
“We got a snapshot with what happened at Disneyland how bad it could be,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat who sponsored the chamber’s version of the bill.
In recent years, vaccination rates at many California schools have plummeted as parents, some of whom fear a now debunked link between vaccines and autism, have declined to inoculate their children.
Most children are vaccinated, but at some schools, many in affluent and liberal enclaves, vaccination rates are well below the 92 percent level needed to maintain group immunity that can protect those who are not vaccinated or have weak immune systems.
The bill was amended in the Assembly to give children with existing exemptions more time before they must be vaccinated against such diseases as measles, polio and pertussis.
Personal beliefs exemptions filed before Jan. 1, 2016, would remain in effect until children complete their “grade spans,” defined as the years from birth to preschool, kindergarten to sixth grade, and seventh through 12th grades.
Children with medical exemptions would not be affected.
In testimony on the bill, opponents said they feared their children would be harmed and that the bill would deny them their right to public education.
Supporters, including the parents of a 7-year-old leukemia survivor, said the high number of unvaccinated children in many schools puts students with weak immune systems, who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, at serious risk.
The legislature had to increase security for one of the bill’s main authors, Democratic Senator Richard Pan of Sacramento, after he received death threats from vaccine opponents.
Pan, a pediatrician, outraged vaccine opponents three years ago when he carried a successful bill to require parents to consult with a medical professional before they could receive a personal beliefs exemption. But he said this time opposition was even more vociferous, surprising many in the legislature and making the bill’s success uncertain for a time.
“People in the opposition say they want children to get these diseases naturally,” Pan said. “But children die of these diseases. They become paralyzed. They develop brain damage. This is not something I would wish on anybody’s child.”
Southern California Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez voted against the bill, saying she vaccinated her own children but believes parents should be able to choose.
“Today’s vote was not about whether or not you support vaccines,” Melendez said. “It was about the freedom to make our own choices as citizens.”
Under the bill, which now goes back to the Senate for approval of amendments, unvaccinated children without a medical exemption would have to study at home or in organized, private home-schooling groups.