Opponents vow to keep fighting medical mandate co-authored by Santa Monica’s Ben Allen

By Gary Walker

State Sen. Ben Allen introduced his vaccine legislation after the Disneyland measles outbreak

State Sen. Ben Allen introduced his vaccine legislation after the Disneyland measles outbreak

Following a series of hotly contested votes in Sacramento, legislation co-authored by state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) to end parent personal belief exemptions from required public school vaccinations became law on Tuesday with a stroke of Gov. Jerry Brown’s pen.

Allen, formerly president of the Santa Monica-Malibu school board, introduced Senate Bill 277 with state Sen. Richard Pan (D- Sacramento) in the wake of last winter’s measles outbreak traced to Disneyland.

Concerns ran especially high at the time in Santa Monica, where a high school baseball coach was diagnosed with measles and a child care center was temporarily shuttered after an infant tested positive for the disease. SMMUSD reported in February that 11.5% of students had received personal belief exemption waivers, though state Dept. of Health records showed much lower kindergarten vaccination rates at several schools.

“This is a victory for public health. This is a message to moms and dads everywhere that they can take their kid to the market and the park and not be in fear of their child contracting a dangerous communicable disease,” Allen said during remarks at the capitol.

While eliminating personal belief exemptions, the new state law — among the toughest in the nation — still allows doctors to grant medical exemptions due to allergies, immune system deficiencies and family history.

Under SB 277, however, unvaccinated children without medical exemptions must be home-schooled, participate in a multi-family private homeschool or attend public school independent study programs administered by school districts — prompting outcry by detractors that the law limits a child’s federal right to a free appropriate public education.

Opponents of the vaccine mandate have vowed to fight the law in court and in the court of public opinion, with a “Health Freedom Rally” planned for
3 p.m. Friday at the corner of Colorado and Ocean avenues in Santa Monica.

Parent groups opposed to SB 277 rallied last week in Sacramento before it passed the Assembly on a 46-31 vote. The state Senate voted 21-14 on Monday to accept last-minute amendments crafted in the Assembly.

Venice parent Safika Erselcuk was among those who traveled to Sacramento last week to rally against SB 277. She also met with other parents to pressure lawmakers to modify the bill before Brown signed it.

“It’s not over. There are a lot of people who are willing to continue to fight SB 277,” Erselcuk said.

Santa Monica pediatrician Jay Gordon testified against the bill in Sacramento, calling it “poorly written and poorly thought-out.” Gordon also thinks opponents of SB 277 will not go away gently.

“The fight will continue. This bill removes a parent’s right to have input into their children’s education,” he said.

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D- Marina del Rey) voted against SB 277. Most Assembly Democrats voted for the bill and most Assembly Republicans voted against it. Burke could not be reached to explain her position.

Venice parent Regan Kibbee said the prevailing sentiment among many fellow parents seemed to be against vaccinating their children, but she and her husband chose to immunize their 10-year-old daughter.

“We were glad, however, to have the support of a pediatric office willing to work with us to delay and space out the vaccinations more than the standard recommended schedule,” Kibbee said. “Now it seems the widespread suspicion of a connection to autism was ungrounded.  Although I support the rights of families to make their own health decisions, it is problematic that those who are not vaccinating their kids are negatively impacting the health of other families.”

Lolly Ward, whose son and daughter attend Broadway Elementary School in Venice, opposed SB 277 based on discussions with parents whose children had suffered bad reactions to flu vaccines.

“I think parents should research and discuss [it] with medical professionals and then make informed decisions for their own family,” Ward said.

Erselcuk said she will continue to fight the vaccination mandate because the new law is unclear about how children with special needs will be affected. The memory of her son’s adverse reaction to a vaccine when he was three years old has made her cautious.

“My son has autism, and I would like to have more clarification about special needs exemptions,” she said.

Gordon rejects the contention that a percentage of unvaccinated students could set the stage for more measles outbreaks.

“During the Disneyland outbreak there were no reported cases of any disease being spread in schools. If vaccines work, there is no great risk because we have a very high vaccination rate in California,” he said.

Allen said the new law will safeguard against future outbreaks but also acknowledged the strong feelings on both sides.

“This has been a very difficult debate for everyone,” he said.