By Hannah Wiley, The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Orange County mom Michelle Sabino says her daughter experienced 16 seizures in two months after she was vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough when she was a baby.
She’d never considered that vaccines could be dangerous. But after consulting with two physicians who both recommended brain scans, and a medical review of her family’s history and records, Sabino said she was shocked when a doctor said future vaccines could be “fatal.”
A speech pathologist, Sabino now says she’s ready to quit her job and leave California to protect her daughter from a proposed law she fears would force her child to receive vaccines.
Sacramento Democrat Richard Pan’s Senate Bill 276 tightens medical exemptions to a narrow list of criteria outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and empowers the state health department to decide who gets them.
“The seizures that she experienced do not qualify,” Sabino said. “If you read through them, if you look through the list, it’s for persistent seizures. And she hasn’t had seizures since early infancy. My daughter would have to be vaccinated to the point of having a death or near-death experience.”
Sabino is among many California parents who have concerns about the bill, which passed the Senate last month and is awaiting votes in the Assembly. Newsom said he had his own doubts at the California Democratic Party Convention, when he told reporters, “I’m a parent. I don’t want someone that the governor of California appointed to make a decision for my family.”
Pan and other doctors want to improve vaccination rates, a public health goal that limits the spread of preventable diseases and protects people who cannot receive vaccines for medical reasons.
The measure would require the state’s Department of Public Health to create a uniform document for doctors to administer an exemption. Public health officials would then review and sign off on the doctor’s judgment, according to national guidelines.
The department also would put the physician’s name, license number and reasons for issuing the exemption into a department-run database.
Eric Ball, an Orange County pediatrician, said the guidelines are narrow because adverse reactions are rare and that “one anecdote does not equal science.”
“It’s a 1-in-a-million kind of thing,” Ball said. “You can have a practice with tens of thousands of kids for decades and never have one come in the door. Every person that goes to Sacramento and protests against this vaccine law, I bet there are 1,000 moms who’ve vaccinated their kids and are just fine.”
But Jane Orient, executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a conservative organization that opposes the bill, says sometimes the “treatment is worse than the disease.”
“If there is a one in a million chance that my child will not be able to talk or walk, then I’ll take the risk of measles, thank you very much,” Orient said. “Somehow vaccines have this very privileged position that we can force (on) people, or at least make it very, very coercive. Like we are going to deprive your child of a public education … if you don’t get 70 or so vaccines.”
More than 95% of kindergarten students are fully vaccinated, according to public health department data for the 2017-2018 school year. That number exceeds what’s required for “community immunity,” or the idea that the more kids who are vaccinated, the safer it is for children who can’t get the shots.
But the number of students with permanent medical exemptions has tripled since the 2015 law, up from 0.2% to 0.7 percent.
“That’s dangerous,” Pan said, attributing the increase to doctors signing off on or selling “fraudulent” exemptions.
The small increase is notable in clusters of schools across the state. Students become “moderately vulnerable” to preventable diseases if there’s a slight dip below a 95% vaccination rate. Less than 80% places a school in the red zone.
The debate coincides with the worst measles outbreak in 25 years. In 2019, 981 cases have been documented, with 51 reported in California. A new poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that nearly 75% of adults support requiring vaccinations, and almost all believe that the shots are safe.
The bill passed the Senate floor on May 22 with 24 votes in favor and all Republicans in dissent. Four Democrats withheld their votes, including Pan’s co-author of the 2015 law.
Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, called passing the 2015 measure a “wild experience,” but withheld his vote for this effort.
“My personal challenge with this bill is that I, so many times during the course over the debate of (the previous legislation), made commitments related to the granting of the medical exemption, to the discretion of the doctor,” Allen said during the floor debate, continuing that Pan’s new effort puts him in a “very difficult spot.”
The Medical Board of California echoed some of Newsom’s skepticism when it voted in late May to “support the bill in concept.”
Board members raised concerns that the guidelines could be too narrow and questioned whether the health department is the appropriate authority to approve exemptions.
Pan said he’s in talks with the governor’s office, but reiterated that the law does not force vaccinations. The proposal only applies to parents who want to send their kids to school, he said.
“Parents still get to choose whether to vaccinate their kids or not,” Pan argues. “There are no forced vaccinations. Everyone gets to choose. And there is a consequence to that choice.”
For Sabino, the choice leaves her considering a new home in Austin, where Texas has more vaccine-flexible laws, and abandoning her work with low-income families.
Doctors say Sabino’s daughter probably would qualify for precautions that could warrant delays, but not necessarily a medical exemption from all vaccines. Children are exempt from that vaccine only if their seizures are “prolonged” and not related to another identifiable cause. And because the handful of exemptions are strictly tailored to each vaccine, health concerns that justify skipping one shot do not earn a blanket exemption for the others.
“I will have to leave,” Sabino said. “I would be abandoning all of it to keep my daughter alive.”