California lawmakers took action after a measles outbreak that began in Disneyland in 2014 was linked to children whose parents had refused vaccines.
Despite parents’ fears, vaccines are largely safe, experts say. The most common side effects are soreness at the injection site or developing a fever or rash, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Everything else people are worried about doesn’t happen, like autism or developmental delays,” said Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious diseases expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
With the personal belief exemption banned in California, the only way to skip the required shots is by homeschooling kids or having a doctor state that a child can’t tolerate vaccines because of a health reason.
The law, known as SB 277, has largely been effective. The vaccination rate among kindergartners is up to 95%, from 93% before the law took effect in 2016.
But doctors say that preventing outbreaks requires high vaccination rates not just statewide, but also in each neighborhood or school. Otherwise, diseases can spread in pockets with low immunity.
But at 785 of the roughly 6,500 elementary schools in the state, 90% or fewer kindergartners had all of their required shots. Some of those students were planning to get their shots later in the school year and they hadn’t come due yet. But many had notes from their doctors saying they shouldn’t be vaccinated for the rest of their childhood.
Doctors say that at most, 3% of people could have a medical reason for not tolerating vaccines, such as a gelatin allergy or because they’re undergoing chemotherapy. But at 20 schools, more than a quarter of students had a medical exemption, according to state data.
“One can only conclude that children are getting bogus medical exemptions and the doctors are willing to give them,” Offit said. “It’s unconscionable — suddenly, 25% of children can’t get vaccines? Really? It doesn’t make any sense.”