California could make it a whole heck of a lot tougher for parents and guardians to choose whether to have their children vaccinated. The Golden State is considering legislation barring the use of the "personal beliefs" justification for skipping vaccinations, determining that the risk of disease spreading as the result of a failure to vaccinate trumps the risk of stepping on an individual family's beliefs.
First, some background
California's legislation stems from an outbreak of measles that originated at Disneyland last year, but the debate over vaccination has been ongoing for years.
Some parents have chosen to not vaccinate their children over fears that vaccinations could lead to life-changing conditions, such as autism. Other parents believe developing a natural immunity outweighs the risks of certain diseases, such as measles. And a small minority believes vaccinations disrupt the evolutionary chain.
Those objections to vaccinations have been consistently countered by a scientific community holding evidence that the dangers of avoiding vaccination far outweigh the risk of vaccination itself.
In California, the argument hit a breaking point amid a measles outbreak this past winter. From Jan. 1 through April, 159 people in 18 states were reported to have contracted measles, including more than 100 Californians. A large number of these people contracted the disease due to an outbreak that began at the Disney theme park, including children who never received vaccines because their parents chose the "personal beliefs" exemption. At last count, 2.5% of California's kindergartners were not vaccinated as a result of that exemption.
Stemming the tide
If California can overcome objections and sign this bill into law, then it will take effect next January, making California the third U.S. state to pass mandatory vaccine legislation. Mississippi and West Virginia have already enacted such laws.
The California bill would prohibit the personal exemption option and force unvaccinated children to be home-schooled. It's unclear how the bill would handle the thousands of children who are already attending school under the personal belief exemption. Some children would still qualify as exempt if a doctor agrees the side effects of vaccination would threaten the child's health.
Passing this legislation could slow a recent trend of increasing cases of measles and other preventable diseases, and further limit the risk of those with weakened immune systems being exposed to the disease. And you can bet vaccine makers will be watching closely, too.
If this vaccine legislation is approved in the nation's largest state, other states could follow suit with their own bills, which could increase demand for vaccines. If so, drugmakers will need to make sure that an adequate supply of vaccines remains available. Vaccine legislation could also encourage drugmakers to redouble their efforts to explore other vaccines for various diseases.
GlaxoSmithKline's vaccine program includes products for the treatment of various forms of hepatitis, tetanus, diptheria, and the flu, while Merck markets M-M-R and ProQuad for the treatment of measles, mumps, and rubella, and Gardasil, an increasingly used HPV vaccine. Both companies also recently reported success for their experimental vaccines for the Ebola virus.
It's unclear whether this legislation will pass, but there is considerable momentum behind it. If approved it would mark an important change in public health that shouldn't be ignored, both in terms of healthcare and personal choice. Regardless, there appears to be a growing trend toward more cases of preventable disease that if left unchecked could pose a greater risk down the road, and this suggests other states might follow California's example.