OAKLAND, Calif. - Kindergartners at four Northern California schools had the highest rates of medical exemptions for vaccines in the state last year, according to data from the California Department of Health.
Last year, California implemented one of the nation’s strictest immunization laws in an effort to stop the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases among children.
The law, which prevents parents from citing religious or other personal beliefs to get out of vaccinating their children, was passed after a 2015 severe measles outbreak that started at Disneyland and was blamed on a high numbers of unvaccinated children.
Under the law, state officials promised to crack down on doctors who wrote unnecessary medical exemptions for parents who want to avoid getting their children vaccinated.
But despite the tough new rules, figures show the number of children with medical exemptions tripled last year.
The Medical Board of California is also investigating scores of complains against doctors, though none have been punished for writing unnecessary medical exemptions.
“If these medically exemptions were spread evenly (among schools) it wouldn’t be an issue, but they’re not,’’ said UC Hastings law professor Dorit Rubinstein Reiss in a recent interview with KTVU. “In some schools we have very high rates of medical exemptions. Those schools are an outbreak waiting to happen.”
Reiss is a critic of leaving medical exemptions fully up to the doctor because there are suggestions online to write medical exemptions for children who have a family history of autism, type one diabetes or asthma.
“None of these are reasons not to vaccinate,’’ said Reiss. “In fact, even the child having diabetes or asthma isn’t a reason not to vaccinate. Children with diabetes need vaccines more, not less.”
At 58 schools in the state, 10 percent or more kindergartners had medical exemptions last fall, according to data crunched by the Los Angeles times.
Four of those schools are near the Bay Area and include Sunridge Charter in Sebastopol, where the rate is 40 percent; Live Oak Charter in Petaluma, where the rate is 25 percent; Sebastopol Independent, where the rate is 24 percent; and Santa Cruz Waldorf where the rate is 19 percent.
Doctors say that at most, 3 percent of people could have a medical reason for not tolerating vaccines, such as a gelatin allergy or because they’re undergoing chemotherapy, the Times reported.
One of he problems is that under the law, no agency is responsible for vetting the validity of medical exemptions.
The law says that doctors writing exemptions are supposed to state the specific nature of the condition that allows the exemption. But the health department’s regulations don’t require them to do so.
“Without stating the specific condition, it’s easier for doctors to give exemptions that are badly based,’’ said Reiss.
Reiss encourages schools to reject exemptions that don’t follow the law.
According to the Times, State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), one of the law’s co-authors, said he called the medical board after hearing that some doctors had received letters about guidelines set by the law. Some doctors saw the letters as a warning.
“The fact of the matter is we don’t need a 100 percent vaccination rate, we just need to up the numbers,” Allen told the Times. “I certainly will not support any attempt by the medical board to try to intimidate doctors.”
Officials from the medical board would not confirm the letter was mailed out, the Times reported.
Reiss said there are steps that can be taken that could lead to a solution for the problem.
Some counties, such as Santa Barbara, are investigating medical exemptions without the child’s name so they are not violating privacy laws.
“But they are looking to see if there is a pattern of certain doctors who are giving a lot of exemptions. And that is good oversight,’’ Reiss said.
Finally, Reiss said, California could change the law, and follow the lead of like West Virginia, where medical exemptions must go through the health department for approval.
“But that would be very difficult to do in California,’’ she said.