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California considers crackdown on vaccine exemptions

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California lawmakers are proposing legislation that would require parents to vaccinate all school children unless a child's health is in danger, joining only two other states with such stringent restrictions.

Parents could no longer cite personal beliefs or religious reasons to send unvaccinated children to school under a proposal introduced Wednesday after dozens of people have fallen ill from a measles outbreak that started at Disneyland. Mississippi and West Virginia are the only other states with such strict vaccine rules, though the California bill's chief author said he would consider including a religious exemption, as allowed under current law.

"People are starting to realize, 'I'm vulnerable, my children are vulnerable,'" said Sen. Richard Pan, a Democratic pediatrician from Sacramento. "We should not wait for more children to sicken or die before we act."

Childhood vaccine has become an emotionally charged topic and a national issue amid a measles outbreak that has sickened at least 145 people in 14 U.S. states and in Mexico. More than 90 of the cases occurred in California.

Like most other states, California allows religious or personal belief exemptions. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California is among 20 states that allow for personal belief exemptions and 48 that allow for religious exemptions.

Last year, parents in California requested more than 13,000 personal belief exemptions.

New Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy: Measles vaccine is safe and effective

Public health officials believe an immunization rate of at least 90 percent in all communities, including schools, is critical to minimizing the potential for a disease outbreak. However, in certain pockets of California, vaccination rates are much lower.

CBS San Francisco reports that at some schools in Marin County, a majority of students go unprotected. More than 80 percent of kindergarteners at two local elementary have not received all their shots.

Parents who forgo immunizing their children cite a variety of reasons, including religious values, concerns the shots could cause illness and the belief that allowing children to get sick helps them to build a stronger immune system.

Those are ideas that public health officials are working hard to counteract. "What science tells us very clearly is that the best way to protect your child and to protect other children and other members of the community is to get vaccinated. It's safe and effective," the newly appointed U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, said Wednesday on "CBS This Morning."

"I think what we need to focus on in this conversation is the science because the science, ultimately, more than personal anecdotes and more than anything else, should drive our decisions as individuals and as families," Murthy said.

The California bill proposed Wednesday is also backed by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, and Ben Allen, a former Santa Monica school board member.

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