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The Vaccination Dilemma

State Intrudes on Doctor-Patient Relationship

County Public Health’s Dr. Henning Ansorg hopes to find common ground with parents afraid to vaccinate. | Credit: Paul Wellman

Until last week, Amanda S. and her husband had no idea they would be packing up their belongings, taking their three kids out of school, and fleeing the state. They loved their life in Santa Barbara, but they believe the State of California has taken away their right to protect their children.

Amanda is an anti-vaxxer, or as she prefers, “ex-vaxxer.” She said she was “very much for vaccines” until she experienced severe side effects from the Gardasil human papillomavirus vaccine in 2007. She said her body went into organ failure, nearly killing her. She began menopause at 21 years old and said she only regained fertility after 10 years of reproductive therapies before she was able to give birth to their two biological children. (Her third child is her stepchild.)

To this day she deals with an autoimmune disease that she attributes to the vaccines; she isn’t willing to gamble the same won’t happen to her kids. Her two biological children had been granted family-history medical exemptions so they could attend school, but new California legislation makes it doubtful that will continue. 

Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bills 276 and 714 into law September 9, tightening California’s childhood immunization requirements. The bills grant the state significantly more oversight on medical practices, including investigating any doctor who provides five or more medical exemptions in a year and all schools with immunization rates below 95 percent, the threshold for herd immunity. 

The bills come at a time when measles have been on the rise after the disease was declared eradicated nationwide in 2000. So far, 67 cases are confirmed in the state since the beginning of the year.

“I understand that the health of their children is important to [parents] and is driving their fear of vaccination,” said Dr. Henning Ansorg, health officer for the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department. “I wish they knew that it’s important to me, too. We need to find a common ground here because we all have the same goal — healthy kids.”

Some parents have felt paralyzed since the bills passed. One dad, Jarrod, had favored vaccines until his daughter, 11 months old at the time, suffered an ischemic stroke two days after receiving the Prevnar shot to prevent pneumonia. “Even though strokes are a listed side effect on the vaccine insert, the second I mention it to doctors they immediately shoot you down and claim it isn’t possible.” Jarrod’s daughter received a vaccination exemption, and he got a family-history exemption for his son because he isn’t willing to “roll the dice with his life, too.”

The new state law allows any medical exemptions before January 1, 2020, to remain until the child begins kindergarten, seventh grade, or changes schools. Temporary medical exemptions are limited to one year. 

“If we didn’t vaccinate, we’d see something like 3,000 deaths per year from measles alone,” County Health Department’s Dr. Ansorg said. “These parents are forgetting what measles looks like. Of course some children need medical exemptions, and they will get them. But overall the risk of measles far outweighs the risk of a bad vaccine reaction.”

Denise couldn’t disagree more. A preschool teacher with three sons, Denise wept as she recalled her daughter’s death of SIDS at six months old, a death she attributes to vaccination: “She was perfectly healthy and died two days after the shot.” Denise said her 8-year-old son has severe food allergies and began banging his head on walls after receiving vaccines at three. Ex-vaxxer parents report their children developed food allergies and muscle ticks after receiving vaccines, so they decided not to vaccinate again. 

Denise joined hundreds of other California parents in Sacramento last week to protest the bills that they believe will put political pressure on doctors and instill fear in medical professionals who otherwise would issue medical exemptions, or at least agree to space out combination vaccines into separate ones.

“I’ve been told by my pediatrician that she would be putting her license on the line if she wrote an exemption because my son is healthy now,” another Santa Barbara mother said, “even though he had a severe reaction at the time of his last vaccine.” Public Health’s Dr. Ansorg disagreed: “It is concerning there were some black sheep doctors who were liberally writing exemptions,” he said. “It is a good thing they will be investigated now.”

Despite the parents who avoid vaccines for their kids, 96.7 percent of kindergarteners in the Santa Barbara Unified School District are fully vaccinated — a higher rate than the 94.8 percent state average. Private schools, however, don’t report.

“We have been stripped of informed consent,” Jarrod said. “No one should ever be forced to undergo a medical procedure that could possibly result in injury or death.”

Several parents are holding a Medical Freedom Forum at the Santa Barbara Central Library, October 6, 4:30- 6:30 p.m., to discuss their views on vaccines. Kids are welcome.

The names of the parents interviewed have been changed per their requests.

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