Return of the anti-vaxxers

Three moms and a science-skeptic group sues to stop California’s school vaccination requirements

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the December 29, 2016, issue.

Like an untreated bacteria, anti-vaxxers have entered a new stage in their opposition to California’s vaccination requirements—lawsuit.

On November 21, the nonprofit A Voice for Choice Inc. along with three mothers sued to overturn Senate Bill 277, the state law that deleted personal beliefs as a reason for not getting children vaccinated prior to enrolling them in school. The complaint, filed in federal district court in Los Angeles, asserts that the law strips California residents of their constitutional rights by forcing vaccine-averse parents to choose between shots and their children’s education.

“Our case is based on cherished principles,” A Voice for Choice founder Christina Hildebrand said in a statement. “The state cannot force you to give up one fundamental right if you wish to exercise another.”

Still, the group acknowledged in a release that suits like this one have faced “uphill” legal tests in other jurisdictions.

The legal maneuver is the latest attempt to forestall public health safeguards that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in June of last year, at a time when dropping vaccination rates coincided with outbreaks of once-controlled viruses like whooping cough, which plagued Sacramento County in 2014, and meningococcal disease, which killed two and sickened nearly two dozen more in Southern California over the summer. Most famously, a measles outbreak that started in Disneyland last year before sweeping to other states was blamed on a lack of childhood vaccinations. Closer to home, three Sacramento County students also fell ill from tuberculosis last year.

On December 8, plaintiffs filed for a preliminary injunction, hoping to halt a law that has been in effect for more than a year. A week later, the state announced its intent to get the lawsuit dismissed at a hearing next month, on the grounds that the allegations were irrational or not based in law. The state is also opposing the request for an injunction.

“Enjoining enforcement of this critical public health legislation would immediately expose millions of California school children and other at-risk individuals to an increased threat of contracting potentially fatal communicable diseases,” the state’s motion reads.

Ironically, the latest motions come within days of an annual report from the California Department of Public Health showing expanded use of influenza vaccines among health care providers.

Though the flu vaccine is one of the less effective vaccines due to the nature of the virus—rated at 47 percent for the most recent flu season by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—the measles vaccine works 97 percent of the time when delivered at the full two doses in childhood.

Less than 80 percent of students have up-to-date vaccinations at nine out of 48 kindergartens in the Sacramento area, according to state public health data. The state considers schools under that mark in its “most vulnerable” category. Dyer-Kelly Elementary on Edison Avenue had only a 40.8-percent up-to-date vaccination rate for the 2015-16 school year, the lowest on record. Gateway International and Greer Elementary both fell under 60 percent.