By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill on Tuesday to make it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their children for communicable diseases in the aftermath of a measles outbreak at Disneyland that was linked to low inoculation rates.
The law, which makes California the third state to eliminate religious and other personal exemptions to vaccinations, generated vociferous opposition from some parents, many who feared a now debunked link between childhood vaccinations and autism and others who feared intrusion on the religious exemption.
"The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases," Brown, a Democrat, wrote in his signing message. "While it's true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community."
Opponents, who had packed legislative hearings and targeted lawmakers with advertisements, petitions and telephone campaigns, reacted swiftly, some threatening lawsuits, despite a provision in the law granting many parents with children in school or starting soon years to comply.
"It is a tragic day for California and a tragic day for America," the group Californians for Vaccine Choice wrote on its Facebook page. "A new battle will begin in the courts now."
In December, more than 100 people were sickened in a measles outbreak traced to the Disneyland theme park in Southern California.
Epidemiologists linked the outbreak to vaccination rates, which have dropped in parts of the state amid fears by some parents that children will suffer side effects or develop autism if they comply with recommended vaccines.
In California, higher use of the personal beliefs exemption to excuse children from vaccination requirements tends to be clustered in affluent, mostly liberal enclaves like Marin County and Santa Monica, state data show.
In the legislature, the bill was opposed mostly by Republicans, who disagreed with the provision that would eliminate parents' right to opt out for religious reasons, although Republican leaders said they had vaccinated their own children.
California, like other U.S. states, mandated vaccinations for school children decades ago after it was shown that inoculation could prevent such childhood scourges as polio, pertussis and measles. The state allowed parents to opt out for personal or religious beliefs.
State Senator Richard Pan, a Democrat and a pediatrician, said the measles outbreak led him to switch his top legislative priority for this year from a new tobacco tax to a stringent vaccination requirement for children in school.
"The opposition was very intense, and they engaged in questionable tactics that increased the resolve of some of my colleagues to see this through," the Sacramento lawmaker said.
Pan, who received death threats during the fight over the bill, said his colleagues and the governor stayed focused on the ultimate goal of protecting childrens' health.
ABOUT-FACE FOR BROWN
Brown's decision to sign the bill marks an about-face for the former seminarian who three years ago opposed eliminating the religious exemption for school vaccines.
On Tuesday, opponents took out a full-page ad in the Sacramento Bee, an influential newspaper in the state's capital, urging him to veto the measure by invoking the argument that pharmaceutical companies are behind the push to vaccinate children.
"Governor Brown, what do you stand for?" read the ad by a group calling itself Concerned Mamas and Grandmas. "People or profits?"
The law allows parents to obtain medical waivers from vaccinations for their children and allows doctors to consider family history when granting them.
It gives many parents years to comply, grandfathering in all personal beliefs exemptions filed before Jan. 1, 2016, until children complete their "grade spans," defined as the years from birth to preschool, kindergarten to sixth grade, and seventh through 12th grades.
Unvaccinated children without a medical exemption would have to be home-schooled or study in small, private homeschooling groups.