Vaccination rates hit an all-time high for California kindergartners, the California Department of Public Health said Wednesday as it announced its first findings since a new law ended the era of the “personal belief exemption” that allowed thousands of parents to choose not to vaccinate their children who attend public and private schools.
The percentage of kindergartners who received all required vaccines rose to 95.6 percent in 2016-17, up from the 92.8 percent rate in 2015-16. This is the highest reported rate for the current set of immunization requirements, which began in the 2001-02 school year, the state said.
“It’s a great thing for California kids,” said Catherine Flores Martin, director of the California Immunization Coalition. “It’s a big win for schools and communities.”
To be clear, California parents do not have to immunize their children. But under the new law, Senate Bill 277, passed in 2015, children must be immunized against 10 serious communicable diseases if they want to attend public or private schools and child care centers. If unvaccinated, children must be home schooled or enrolled in independent study with no classroom instruction or receiving special education services, the California Department of Public Health said.
Children may be granted a medical exemption to vaccinations with a note from a doctor attesting that the child’s health condition prohibits vaccinations. Rates of medical exemptions rose to 0.5 percent in 2016-17 from 0.2 percent in 2015-16. The California Department of Health also released a new category of information – 0.5 percent of kindergartners were reported as lacking full immunization because they attended private home schools or independent study programs or received special education services.
Tulare County had the highest rate – 98.5 percent – of vaccinated kindergartners followed by San Benito County with 98.1 percent, the state said.
But even with the increase in vaccination rates, nine counties have vaccination rates below 90 percent for kindergartners, the state said. A 90 percent to 95 percent vaccination rate is considered “herd immunity,” the rate necessary to protect a community – particularly those who are too sick or too young to be vaccinated – from an outbreak of many types of contagious diseases. Measles, which is highly contagious, requires a 95 percent vaccination rate to protect the community, health officials say.
While personal belief exemptions are no longer granted, 0.6 percent of kindergartners were not vaccinated because of a personal belief exemption they had obtained a year earlier in transitional kindergarten. The law stated that their exemption would continue to be valid in kindergarten. All told, 1.5 percent of kindergartners lacked required immunizations in 2016-17, a decline from the 2.5 percent rate in 2015-16, because of medical exemptions, previously awarded personal belief exemptions or enrollment in home schooling, independent study or special education, the state said.
At hearings at the state Capitol, hundreds of parents vociferously pleaded with legislators not to repeal the personal belief exemption. But public health advocates prevailed.
In California and elsewhere, nonmedical exemptions have created pockets of unvaccinated children that have facilitated the spread of potentially life-threatening diseases, particularly measles and pertussis, according to a 2016 research review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2016.
The most at-risk groups for the diseases are infants who are too young to be vaccinated and individuals with compromised immune systems.