For almost two months, parents of California public schoolchildren have been able to claim with no proof that their religion precludes getting their children vaccinated against once dreaded and disabling diseases like polio, rubella, mumps, pertussis and smallpox.
This enables parents who believe in false myths to exempt their children easily, even if they really have no religious beliefs at all.
It comes thanks to a relatively unpublicized signing message Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012 attached to his approval of a bill originally designed to make it slightly more difficult for parents to evade the vaccinations almost all children must get before they can attend public schools.
No one yet knows just how many parents are availing themselves of their Brown-ordered new ability to merely check off a box on a form rather than having a doctor, school nurse or nurse practitioner sign a form attesting that they have been informed of the benefits of vaccinations. Figures won’t be known until late spring at the earliest.
But supporters of the vaccinations that have caused the near disappearances of many serious diseases warn that a proliferation of anti-vaccination myths might accelerate a trend away from vaccinations that actually began prior to Brown’s order.
In short, parents who believe those shibboleths can claim a religious belief even when they have none, and they can’t be questioned.
As it stands, no organized religion now forbids adherents to vaccinate their children. This may be because almost all of today’s religious doctrines originated before vaccinations began in the first half of the last century. “Even Christian Scientists say it’s in the parents’ hands to do what’s best for their children,” says Catherine Flores Martin, executive director of the California Immunization Coalition. But many Christian Scientist adherents have claimed the tougher-to-get exemptions offered before this year.
Altogether, 97 percent of all California schoolchildren are vaccinated, with various inoculations required prior to enrollment at assorted grade levels.
“If a recent trend we noticed away from vaccinations accelerates, we’ll revisit the subject with both the Legislature and the governor,” Martin said. In California, the trend has been most pronounced in Marin, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara counties, Martin reported.
An increase in exemptions seems likely under Brown’s order, which made it easier for parents to lie about their religious beliefs either to avoid the hassle of getting children vaccinated or because they actually believe some of the myths.
One of those falsehoods ties the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to increased autism rates. This myth, originally published in a British medical journal, was debunked years ago and was long ago renounced even by the authors of the flawed British study. But it persists, even getting a full airing last fall on the syndicated TV talk show of former CBS News anchorwoman Katie Couric.
“Like many flawed and false stories that circulate on the Internet, a lot of people who heard the original story didn’t see the retraction and backpedaling from this one,” said Martin. Kouric later tried to correct what she had aired, but Martin says, “It’s too early to tell if that effort had any effect.”
More myths are associated with other vaccines. Example: There’s a wide, but false, belief that pertussis (whooping cough) vaccines are tied to seizures, despite a lack of evidence for the claim.
Brown has thus far appeared oblivious to the potential harm of his gratuitous signing order, his spokesman saying that he “believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit.” He has said nothing beyond that his order aimed only to “take into account First Amendment religious freedoms through an extremely narrow exemption.”
But the exemption turns out to be quite wide, not narrow at all, a loophole in existing health laws. Parents who don’t want to bother now need only check off that box on a form, which means that the moment there’s firm evidence the loophole created is being used by liars and not believers, Brown must reverse it even if that means admitting he made a big mistake.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at [email protected]