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California Bill May Reshape Vaccination Laws Across the Nation

Vaccine laws in other states may be toughened, observers agree, if California strips parents' rights to exempt their kids from immunizations.
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/ Source: NBC News

Vaccine laws across the nation may be toughened, observers say, if California passes a fervently debated bill that would strip parents' rights to exempt kids from immunizations based on personal beliefs.

A potential end to California's opt-out provision gained ground Wednesday when the state senate's education committee voted 7-2 to require full vaccinations for almost all public school students.

The move came in the wake of "anti-vax" parents were often blamed for the Disneyland measles outbreak that sickened 147 people as it spread to at least five states.

"Other states will be looking carefully at the California experience if this goes through," said Dr. Eric Kodish, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Ethics, Humanities and Spiritual Care. "If they become a place where, as I would predict, fewer children get sick and die, it’s something other states would want to look at."

Even opponents believe the bill's passing could have sweeping effect across the nation.

"If it passes, oh my gosh, all hell is going to break loose. All eyes are on California," said Elaine Shtein, 34, of San Jose. She blames her five-year-old son's autism diagnosis on his vaccinations. She's one of many parents who have criticized the bill. Last week, she brought her daughter, Sophia, 7, to attend a senate hearing.

Previous senate sessions spurred spirited testimonies from parents against the measure: Like when Robert Kennedy Jr. — the son of former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy — also came to Sacramento and characterized the number of children injured by vaccines as "a holocaust."

On Wednesday, there was no testimony, just a vote. Still, opponents arrived at the Capitol clad in red clothing and carrying red roses to represent kids injured by or who died from vaccinations, the Sacramento Bee reported.

"If someone knocked on my door and said Sophia needs these vaccinations in order for her to be in third grade, I would say, 'No, not going to happen,'" Shtein, whose daughter attends public school, said in a phone interview with NBC News. "Before I let anyone lay a hand on my daughter, I would home-school her."

But bioethicist Kodish contends some parents have forsaken parental responsibilities for the pursuit of parental rights. The California measles outbreak, he argues, showed how public health threats emerge when more parents opt out of vaccinating their kids.

"I would ask these parents to think about the kids with illnesses like leukemia whose immune systems don't work well (against viruses like measles)," Kodish said. "Do parents have any obligations to other children or just to their own biological children? I hope, certainly for our society, that we would be thinking collectively about what’s good for (all) children and not just our own individual children."

Similar proposals to bar vaccine exemptions on the grounds of "personal belief" have been considered this spring in New Jersey and Texas.

Meanwhile, bills that sought end the opt-out clause failed in the Washington, Oregon, Vermont and North Carolina.

"This will set precedent for adult vaccinations also. If we're saying school-age children need to be vaccinated then what about teachers? What about daycare providers? What about principals? They going to be next."

But some experts see California as the most potent social and medical laboratory, the state where such legislative action could create national waves.

Under that bill, parents of ill children still could get immunization waivers for medical reasons.

"Since California is such a big state, I believe other states will look to see what happens should California remove all exemptions except medical contraindications," said Dr. Walter Orenstein, president-elect of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

"Should the experience be positive, more states may take this route," Orenstein said.

That's a roadmap that worries some parents like Shtein, who describes herself not as anti-vaccination but as "pro-health" with deep concerns about any government dictating any child's vaccination schedule.

And she believes the momentum from California, should the bill become law, could color future immunization laws for Americans of all ages.

"This will set precedent for adult vaccinations also. If we're saying school-age children need to be vaccinated then what about teachers? What about daycare providers? What about principals? They going to be next," Shtein said.

"And then what? Will adults need their vaccination records to board airplanes?"

The California vaccination bill next goes to that state's senate judiciary committee for debate on its legal ramifications.