California law to encourage vaccination may offer an easy out

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The state of California is reportedly now embroiled in a high-stakes public health debate pitting citizens‘ religious convictions against society’s need to protect against the potential spread of childhood illnesses.

NPR reports the debate is pivoting on a widely used state form parents must complete should they desire an exemption from having their kids immunized.

For some time, officials have reportedly been grappling with a rise in parents evoking so-called personal belief exemptions from vaccines – so much so, that health officials fear disease outbreaks, NPR writes.

Last year and in response, the California State Legislature passed a law requiring parents seeking such an exemption to first consult, “a health care provider about the risks and benefits of vaccines.”

But when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law, he added a caveat, directing the Department of Health, “to  allow for a separate religious exemption on the form. In this way, people whose religious beliefs preclude vaccinations will not be required to seek a health care practitioner's signature."

The new exemption form was released last week and the result was shock when public health officials discovered two boxes. NPR reports one box denoted the place where parents were to affirm they had, indeed, spoken with a professional.

The other box, however, read, “I am a member of a religion which prohibits me from seeking medical advice or treatment from authorized health care practitioners."

And if you checked that second box, NPR reports, you didn’t need to check the first, or first consult with a health-care provider.

"It was a surprise," Catherin Flores Martin, executive director of the California Immunization Coalition, a state-funded advocacy and education group, told NPR. "I don't think [Brown] is anti-vaccine at all. He's very pro-science. I could not say what drove him to do this."

Health officials say the presence of the second box contradicts the law’s intention – and renders it feckless.

"It will give parents who want to get out of it an easy out," Dorit Reiss, of the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, reportedly said. "I'm not sure it's good public policy to encourage people to lie."

Added Martin: "We're going to live with it and see if the exemption rates stay the same or go up. If they go up, then essentially the governor gutted the bill by writing that."

Click for the story from NPR.