Oakland community leading the discussion on implementation
Earlier this year, Californians engaged in heated debate over the state’s “School Vaccine Bill” as it made its way through the state legislature. At the time, the majority of the Senate Bill 277’s opponents were White voters living in middle class suburbs and smaller towns.
Now, two months after the bill has become California law, vaccine safety is becoming an issue of growing concern among people in the state’s Black communities as well. It is also increasingly becoming a sticking point in the national political conversation. From 2016 presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson to ordinary Californians, people are expressing concerns about the U.S. vaccine schedule and demanding answers about the potential risks of vaccines to children.
One California father, George Fatheree, is deeply troubled by the new “School Vaccine Law.” The Los Angeles-area attorney says he’s disappointed that state lawmakers rushed to pass the legislation without considering Californians like him. His son Clayton, he says, was born healthy but began having seizures after receiving a series of vaccines during his four-month “well-baby” visit. Clayton’s seizures were controlled with medication and his condition was improving until his next pediatrician’s visit at seven months old. During that visit, Fatheree says his pediatrician talked him and his wife into giving Clayton another round of vaccines against their parental instincts and better judgment. That night, Clayton’s seizures returned intensified and his parents didn’t hear his voice again for the next three years. Now a teenager, Clayton still suffers with dozens of seizures a day.
Fatheree shared his son’s story during the Assembly Health Committee hearing before the bill passed. Committee members expressed a myriad of concerns about the School Vaccine Bill but voted to allow it out of committee nonetheless. Two weeks ago, at a meeting in Oakland called by a member of the Oakland School Board, Fatheree joined concerned community members to share his story and speak out against the new law. Many in the audience said they never got the chance to ask questions about the law before it passed. In fact, the gathering was the first time they had a chance to hear directly from a state health official about it.
The “School Vaccine Law,” which will go into effect in 2016, removes personal belief exemptions from vaccination requirements for children. It requires that all students who attend public schools, private schools and daycare centers get multiple doses of 10 different vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) before they can enroll.
Anxieties about how the law could impact children have been growing in communities across the state. That’s why Oakland public schools District 3 Director, Jumoke Hinton-Hodge said she organized the informational community meeting. The goal of the meeting was to begin a dialogue on the “School Vaccine Law” among African-Americans parents in the district. With a little over 100,000 Black residents, Oakland is home to the second largest African-American community in the state after Los Angeles.
Vaccination safety is becoming a major national issue.
As concern about the new “School Vaccine Law” brews in California’s Black communities, the overall safety of vaccinations is increasingly becoming an important issue in the national conversation as well. Last Tuesday, at a Republican presidential debate televised on CNN, GOP candidate Dr. Ben Carson was asked a question about comments frontrunner Donald Trump has made about vaccines being linked to autism. But Dr. Carson did not say Trump was wrong for talking about a vaccine-autism link. Trump, in turn, recounted the story of one of his employees’ children who was a perfectly healthy, beautiful two-year old, who became autistic after routine vaccinations.
“Just the other day, a 2-year-old, beautiful child who went to have the vaccine, came back and a week later got a tremendous fever. Now, she is autistic,” said the billionaire businessman to the debate audience at.
Candidates Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon, and Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist, also voiced their concerns about the U.S. vaccine schedule and the importance of parents’ rights to delay or space out shots for their children.
Carson went so far as to say that some vaccines are non-essential and said that while the medical literature says vaccinations do not cause autism, we may be giving too many vaccines in too short of a time period.
“I think a lot of pediatricians now recognize that and are cutting down on the number and the proximity in which those are done,” said the lone Black candidate for president.
Paul said he supports vaccines but also stands up for freedom and parental choice.
“Even if the science doesn’t say bunching them up is a problem, I ought to be able to spread my vaccines out a little bit at the very least,” he said.
Public Safety vs. Vaccination Safety
Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 277 into law on June 30th after months of heated debate between vaccine uptake advocates and vaccine safety advocates.
“The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases,” Brown said after signing the bill. His signing message did not address the issues raised by opponents of the bill about vaccine injury or Consitutionally-protected equal education rights of California’s children.
Democratic State Sens. Richard Pan of Sacramento and Ben Allen of Santa Monica authored the legislation after a measles outbreak at Disneyland in Anaheim resulted in over 100 people contracting the measles.
At the meeting in Oakland, there were supporters and opponents of the law. The panel included Hinton-Hodge; Bay Area activist and former Black Panther Party leader Elaine Brown; Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Antwan Wilson; Oakland-based Nation of Islam Minister Keith Muhammad; and Alameda County Department of Public Health official Dr. Erica Pan.
Pan said vaccinations are needed for “community immunity.”
“Think of it like secondhand smoke,” said Pan who is not related to SB 277’s author. “There are people who chose not to smoke, but are still impacted.”
Others on the panel emphasized vaccine safety instead.
Muhammad mentioned the well-publicized Aug. 27, 2014 statement made by CDC whistleblower Dr. William Thompson. Thompson admitted that he and his co-authors of a 2004 study omitted data that suggested Black males who received the MMR vaccine before they were 36-months-old were at an increased risk for autism.
Tisha Mohammad, an Oakland mom who has two vaccine-injured sons, shared her story, too.
“You have no idea what this does to a family,” she said.
Pan said she understood people’s concerns about vaccines but stressed their importance.
“I believe vaccines are safe,” she said. “It is the best protection we have.”
Community member Christopher Muhammad wants a formal investigation into vaccination safety.
“We have the right to have pause to study this issue,” he said. “This issue has real impact when you start talking about the rights of every Californian to have an education.”