An open mind, but un­changed

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - ROBIN AB­CAR­IAN robin.ab­car­ian@la­times.com Twit­ter: @Ab­car­i­anLAT

Robin Ab­car­ian finds com­mon ground, but not agree­ment, with foes of manda­tory vac­ci­na­tion.

SANTA CRUZ — We sat out­side on a gor­geous spring day here, the four moms and me. Lu­cia Scia­rpa Pax­ton, a for­mer Span­ish teacher and pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher, had pre­pared an im­pres­sive lunch. For two hours, as we moved from roasted fen­nel salad to cof­fee, the women ex­plained why Cal­i­for­nia should not re­quire vac­ci­na­tions for school­child­ren.

I had met Pax­ton, 42, in a hall­way out­side a state Se­nate hear­ing room in Sacra­mento in April. She had come with hun­dreds of oth­ers to protest SB 277, which would elim­i­nate the state’s per­sonal be­lief ex­emp­tion. The PBE al­lows par­ents to opt out of vac­ci­nat­ing kids against dis­eases like po­lio, chick­en­pox, measles and whoop­ing cough.

The new law, still wend­ing through the Leg­is­la­ture, would not ap­ply to chil­dren who can­not be im­mu­nized for med­i­cal rea­sons. Nor would it ap­ply to chil­dren who are home-schooled in­de­pen­dently or un­der the su­per­vi­sion of public schools, as is the case for Pax­ton’s 14-year-old daugh­ter, Ze­phyra, who has been se­lec­tively vac­ci­nated. Pax­ton op­poses the bill on prin­ci­ple.

Manda­tory vac­ci­na­tions seem like such a no-brainer to me. The per­sonal be­lief ex­emp­tion has got­ten out of hand, es­pe­cially in highly ed­u­cated, mostly white en­claves such as Marin and Santa Cruz coun­ties, im­per­il­ing herd im­mu­nity. And yes, the bill is a form of co­er­cion. Then again, so are seat belt laws and an­ti­smok­ing laws.

Still, I wanted to know more about how th­ese women think. I wanted to lis­ten with an open mind.

Pax­ton said she’d be happy to talk to me as long as she could in­clude some of her al­lies in the battle against the bill. As we sat down to lunch, Ze­phyra left on her skate­board. I could not help but no­tice she wore a hel­met.

We were joined by Joni Martin, 51, a writer and surfer whose two chil­dren, 17 and 11, have been se­lec­tively vac­ci­nated, in­clud­ing against measles; Barb Matessa, 39, a for­mer school­teacher who fully vac­ci­nated her 10-year-old son, then de­cided against vac­ci­nat­ing her 3-year-old daugh­ter for Hep­ati­tis B; and Sharla Ja­cobs, 42, an en­tre­pre­neur and the mother of two chil­dren, 6 and 4, who have had no vac­ci­na­tions.

Ja­cobs said that she has a mu­ta­tion of a gene that makes it “very dif­fi­cult to detox from any­thing from the out­side world,” and that she be­lieves chil­dren with this mu­ta­tion have been “in­jured” by vac­cines.

Among vac­cine skep­tics, I have learned, “vac­cine in­jury” is of­ten a syn­onym for autism. The word “autism” did not come up un­til I men­tioned it.

I got the sense that the women wanted to steer clear of the dis­cred­ited claim that vac­cines cause autism. But I also got the feel­ing they are sym­pa­thetic to a pos­si­ble link.

“I don’t hear a whole lot of con­ver­sa­tion about autism,” Ja­cobs said. “It’s some­thing the me­dia is hyp­ing up.”

So what is their case against the manda­tory vac­cine bill? Mainly, they don’t think the gov­ern­ment has the right to in­ter­fere with an in­di­vid­ual’s med­i­cal de­ci­sion and they ques­tion whether many vac­cines im­prove public health.

Martin, who has the sooth­ing de­meanor you might ex­pect from some­one who has stud­ied con­flict res­o­lu­tion, did most of the talk­ing.

Rather than force peo­ple to vac­ci­nate their kids, she said, the state should gather ac­cu­rate data about which vac­ci­na­tions chil­dren lack, since so many chil­dren with PBEs seem to be par­tially or se­lec­tively vac­ci­nated.

If a school has a low im­mu­niza­tion rate against, say, Hep­ati­tis B, she said, “I would ar­gue, are we re­ally go­ing to worry about that?”

(I would, since the vac­cine can pro­vide pro­tec­tion for many years against the dis­ease, which of­ten is de­scribed as sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted, but can also be passed among chil­dren in day care and school set­tings.)

Rather than man­dat­ing im­mu­niza­tions, Martin said, there ought to be an ef­fort to “en­cour­age and ed­u­cate.”

The ex­emp­tion rate al­ready is drop­ping be­cause of a 2013 law re­quir­ing par- ents to be coun­seled by physi­cians be­fore fil­ing per­sonal be­lief ex­emp­tions. That law, she said, needs more time to work. (The ACLU has agreed with her on that point.)

Martin said the state should also push for more vac­cine safety re­search. “I think in some ways the gov­ern­ment is afraid to do re­search that would re­veal any­one hav­ing an ad­verse re­ac­tion to vac­cines,” she said.

Of course, there can al­ways be more re­search, but many stud­ies al­ready have ex­am­ined vac­cine safety. There is no ques­tion that a tiny por­tion of chil­dren have had se­ri­ous ad­verse re­ac­tions. But what we do know, un­equiv­o­cally, is that vac­cines save lives.

Orig­i­nally, op­po­si­tion to this bill fo­cused on parental rights: “Where there is a risk, there must be a choice,” was the slo­gan. But that ar­gu­ment has gained lit­tle trac­tion.

Af­ter three com­mit­tee hear­ings, the bill passed eas­ily in the state Se­nate.

It is slated to be taken up by the health com­mit­tee in the As­sem­bly be­fore it goes to the floor for a vote, which could hap­pen by mid-July.

No one is tak­ing bets on what the gover­nor will do.

The PR battle ap­pears to have been lost by those who op­pose the bill. On Wed­nes­day, a new poll showed that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Cal­i­for­ni­ans — 67% — be­lieve chil­dren should be vac­ci­nated to at­tend school. More than 8 in 10 said vac­cines are “very” or “some­what” safe.

But now the op­po­si­tion, loosely gath­ered as the Cal­i­for­nia Coali­tion for Health Choice, seems to have shifted tac­tics. The As­sem­bly’s ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tee, which is not slated to hear the bill, “needs time to care­fully re­view this bill,” ac­cord­ing to ma­te­rial from the coali­tion.

Schools, my lunch com­pan­ions told me, will be un­duly bur­dened by en­forc­ing the law. Fam­i­lies who refuse to vac­ci­nate but can­not af­ford to homeschool their chil­dren would suf­fer. Par­ents who speak only Span­ish would not be able to pro­vide English­language in­struc­tion at home. Chil­dren would be de­nied their con­sti­tu­tional right to at­tend school.

Yet public school dis­tricts — along with the Cal­i­for­nia School Boards Assn., the Cal­i­for­nia School Em­ploy­ees Assn. and the state PTA — are among the bill’s most prom­i­nent sup­port­ers.

The sin­cer­ity of my lunch com­pan­ions was unas­sail­able. I tried hard not to judge as they spoke. As pleas­ant as our af­ter­noon was, noth­ing they said changed my mind.

We have many things in com­mon, not least a con­sum­ing love for our chil­dren. When it comes to en­sur­ing their health, how­ever, we are worlds apart.

Robin Ab­car­ian Los An­ge­les Times

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY moth­ers, from left, Joni Martin, Lu­cia Scia­rpa Pax­ton and Barb Matessa op­pose SB 277, a pro­posed Cal­i­for­nia law that would end the per­sonal be­lief ex­emp­tion that al­lows par­ents to opt out of vac­ci­nat­ing their chil­dren.

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