Disinformation on vaccines is a threat to public health
By Richard Pan
“I want you to listen to the scientists. I want you to unite behind the science, and I want you to take real action,” 16 year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg told Congress.
The same applies to vaccines, as the World Health Organization declares “vaccine hesitancy” a global health threat, and the United States experienced the largest number of measles cases since 1992.
Unfortunately, both efforts to address the climate crisis and insufficient vaccination are stymied by disinformation campaigns. Decades of research have proven vaccines are safe and effective, but false claims—including that vaccines cause autism—have frightened parents.
While vaccines provide individual protection, their full impact requires collective action. To achieve community immunity to halt measles, a vaccination rate above 94% is needed. This protection is important since babies, transplant patients and people being treated for cancer or with other immune-compromised conditions cannot be vaccinated and depend on community immunity.
We have already experienced what happens when vaccination rates are too low. In 2010, whooping cough killed 10 infants and hospitalized 809 in California, an outbreak traced to places parents declined to vaccinate their children. In 2015, a measles outbreak beginning in Disneyland infected 136 Californians, the vast majority unvaccinated or with unknown vaccination. Twenty were hospitalized and, again, the outbreak spread through places with low vaccination rates.
To protect children, I authored Senate Bill 277 in 2015 to abolish the personal belief exemption to legally required vaccines to attend school. This law successfully raised the school vaccination rates to restore community immunity; however, the law left medical exemptions to the discretion of individual physicians without oversight.
Unfortunately, a small number of unscrupulous physicians, many of whom profit from promoting vaccine disinformation, sold medical exemptions. Medical exemption rates quadrupled since SB 277 became law, eroding our hard-won community immunity. More than 100 schools had medical exemptions rate above 10%, far above what science predicted.
Like the climate crisis, California is affected by action, or inaction, around the globe. In the European Union, where many countries have universal health care coverage, only four countries have vaccination rates of above 94% and there have been more than 44,000 measles cases since 2016. This year, Japan has the highest rate of measles since 2006. The United States almost lost our measles elimination status, which was achieved in 2000. In 2019, there have been more than 1,200 cases resulting in more than 100 hospitalizations.
While measles came to California from other states and countries, SB 277 helped prevent another large outbreak like 2015.
To maintain community immunity, this year I introduced SB 276 to provide oversight and eliminate inappropriate medical exemptions. Without real scientific evidence, a well-funded opposition resorted to disinformation, bullying and rhetorical—and even physical—violence to attack the bill. Opponents are collecting signatures for a statewide referendum to overturn the new law.
The people of California, however, stand strongly in favor of the SB 276, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in September. A UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll showed 83% support the law. Also, a Public Policy Institute of California survey shows support for mandating vaccines for school has risen from 67% in 2015 to 73% this year.
Every child deserves the right to be safe at school. Unite behind the science, and we can take real action to keep our community safe and healthy.