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California Measles Outbreak Roils Vaccination Disputes


Sandy Roffman is not vaccinating her daughter, Brooklyn, but not by choice.

“We were told that she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia," Roffman said, "which requires two years of very, very heavy chemotherapy” — and that completely wipes out her immune system. All vaccinations for Brooklyn had to be suspended.

“I feel incensed that there are people out there who are deliberately exposing their children to other illnesses," Roffman said. "I have spent the last 2-1/2 years of my life with a chronically ill child. It’s unfathomable to me that, A, anyone would deliberately put their child in harm and, B, would put the rest of the world at harm.”

Roffman is referring to parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. Eric Handler, public health officer of Orange County, California, said a measles outbreak that originated in the Disneyland theme park has now spread. In Orange County alone, more than 30 people have contracted measles, and a third of them are children.

“The children, the majority, were not vaccinated,” he said.

Handler said some parents are afraid their children will get autism from vaccines, something that’s been disproven in the medical community. He points to the Internet as a source of much of the fears among parents.

Parents like Dotty Hagmier who don’t vaccinate their children say they are acting in the children's best interests.

“There’s also many risks if they get the vaccine ... versus getting an illness they could actually recover from,” she said.

Such parents, Handler said, "are making a decision not to vaccinate based on information that they get from the Internet and from their peers. And we see pockets of affluent areas choosing to not get vaccinated, but this is not unique to Orange County.”

In California, students are required to be vaccinated when they enter school, but parents who don’t vaccinate their children can get a waiver called a Personal Belief Exemption. State records show that in child care facilities for 2- to 4-year-olds, there are more Personal Belief Exemptions in private schools than public schools.

Roffman wanted to enroll her daughter in a school that specialized in art but didn't because of the number of unvaccinated children there.

“We’re talking about children of educated artists attending this school [that] has an 11 percent Personal Belief Exemption [rate]," she said. "This is the school that we want to send our child to but we can’t."

But there has been a slight decrease in the number of Personal Belief Exemptions issued in California schools. Handler attributed that to a state law enacted last year that requires parents to talk to a health care provider who has to sign off on the waiver. He stressed that it is in the best interest of the child and the community to vaccinate children.

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