Though a Sansum Clinic–sponsored event to discuss vaccination rates was not nearly as contentious as two recent jam-packed State Senate committee hearings on mandating vaccines for school children, a panel of area doctors addressed controversial elements of the issue at the Lobero Theatre on Thursday evening.
“Parents want to do the best for their children,” said Santa Barbara County public health officer Dr. Charity Dean, who has three sons of her own. Lately, debates about the issue in social media have been quite “heated,” Dean said, causing people to close their ears. She encouraged discussions to occur in smaller settings, calling for people to “recognize that we all have good intentions for our kids.”
Debates about vaccines were reignited after a measles outbreak that originated at Disneyland late last year. As of April 10, 159 people from 18 states were reported to have measles, a disease that had been considered eradicated in the U.S. as of the year 2000. According to Dean, 80 percent of them did not have the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Of the 20 percent who were immunized, Dean said, some had just one of two required doses. On Friday morning, state public health officials declared the recent measles outbreak over, as no new related cases had been detected in the last 42 days.
In Santa Barbara, a collection of generally affluent schools in the county has noticeably high personal belief exemption rates, Dean said, which is a stark contrast to many schools at which nearly all kids have had their shots. About 95 percent of vaccinated children are required for herd immunity to be considered effective. At Montecito Union, 79 percent of children are fully vaccinated. At Santa Barbara Unified School District, 89 percent of children at Washington Elementary School and 81 percent of children at Roosevelt Elementary School are fully immunized. On the opposite end of the spectrum, nearly 100 percent of kids at Franklin and Adams elementary schools had all of their shots, according to state records available online at shotsforschool.org.
A recent legislative effort, Senate Bill 277, seeks to eliminate personal belief exemption forms, including for religious reasons. On Wednesday, legislators in the Senate Education Committee, surrounded by pleas from hundreds of so-called anti-vaxxers, would have likely blocked the measure from getting out of committee had its author not delayed the vote until next week. The committee expressed concern that the ban could limit access to education; public and private schools would be affected. Last week, the bill was approved at an equally lively hearing of the Senate Health Committee.
Thursday’s event at the Lobero was the opposite of lively. Sansum CEO Kurt Ransohoff acknowledged the controversial nature of the topic and said they decided to have a panel of medical professionals answer audience questions rather than host a debate.
One audience member asked: How do you deal with people who fervently oppose vaccinations? Steven Barkley, the chief pediatric medical officer at Cottage Children’s Hospital, said a small number of people could be left alone. “We can protect them” by surrounding them with people who are inoculated, he said (aka “herd immunity”). But by spreading awareness, Barkley believes, the number of those unvaccinated will drop.
To that end, Sansum, Cottage, and the county’s Public Health and County Education Office will collaborate to launch “Strive for 95,” a new effort to increase the area vaccination rate to 95 percent. Sansum’s Dr. Daniel Brennan called the coalition a “grassroots campaign” that will try to reach people outside the traditional medical world, focusing on schools.