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California Vaccination Rates Jump After Eliminating Personal Belief Exemptions

Children attending public schools in Oregon can still forgo vaccinations with a personal belief exemption, but California did away with those waivers years ago. The result: increased immunization in high-risk areaslike Trinity County.

Back in 2015, the rural Northern California county had the lowest kindergarten vaccination rate in the state at 77 percent. Doctors recommend a rate of at least 91 percent to prevent major outbreaks from diseases like measles or chickenpox.

Then California lawmakers eliminated personal belief exemptions in 2016. After that, immunization rates shot up by 26 percent — the highest county-level increase in the state.

“This is a solid public health policy,” says Marcie Cudziol of Trinity County Public Health. “This is like the poster child. When you have a really good public health policy and you have a strong public health infrastructure locally, this is what it looks like when it works.”

But then the number of medical exemptions went up. Cudziol says anti-vaccination parents were likely pressuring their doctors to issue medical exemptions for their children, as opposed to the now-eliminated personal belief exemptions.

A new California law that takes effect this year further regulates medical exemptions. It gives public health officials the final say on these waivers and the authority to reject them.

As this new law takes effect, Cudziol expects medical exemptions will drop as well.

April Ehrlich is JPR content partner at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.