Last week, we celebrated the leadership shown by the Supreme Court when it affirmed equality under the law for many who previously had been denied it. At the same time, a local leader was making headlines by taking a stand on another important issue.
State Sen.Ben Allen, a Santa Monica native who now represents our city in Sacramento, saw the bill he introduced — SB 277 — signed into law by the governor last week. The bill, by removing the personal-belief exemption for vaccinations, will go far to safeguard the future of public health in California.
Thanks to his leadership and hard work, all children healthy enough to receive vaccinations will have to if they are to attend school. This measure is essential to protect all of us, especially our children, the elderly and others with weaker immune systems, from future outbreaks of potentially deadly diseases like measles.
Aside from the fact that this new law will protect future generations from epidemics of preventable diseases, what is notable about this achievement is the strong leadership required by Allen — along with the 30 legislators, including State Assemblymember Richard Bloom, who co-authored Allen’s bill — to push it through in the face of fear-mongering, threats and proliferation of misinformation by a vocal minority opposed to this measure.
Elected officials can easily take the path of least resistance, dodging controversial decisions and avoiding uncomfortable positions for fear of offending even the smallest segment of their constituency. But a good leader necessarily cannot take that path. A good leader must, first and foremost, stand up for what is right.
This is especially important at a time in politics when, at all levels, we see a rise in anti-science and anti-expert pundits, those merchants of doubt, who sow fear and uncertainty to advance their agendas at the expense of rational debate.
While being willing to stand up for what is right in the face of sometimes violent opposition is essential to good leadership, so is the ability to convince others, especially those who may disagree with you, to follow your lead. That requires a sincere commitment to your vision, a concerted effort to overcome obstacles to achieving that vision, a sensitivity to the concerns of those who may not see eye-to-eye with you and a willingness to listen without compromising your core values that are foundation of your vision.
Allen understands that now is the time to think about sensitive implementation of California’s new vaccination law. Though the law is passed, it is necessary now for our leaders to cut through the fear and misinformation in order to get everyone on board in support of a healthier and safer future for California.
Leaders like Allen understand that the importance of this issue cannot be overstated. Whether or not vaccinations should be mandatory, except in cases where a person’s health prevents it, isn’t a question of personal belief; it is a matter of life and death.
Only 15 years ago, measles had been eliminated as a threat in the United States, yet last week, officials confirmed the first death from the highly contagious — and preventable — disease in our country since 2000. On the heels of the 2014 outbreak of the same disease at Disneyland, this is truly terrifying.
These recent incidents are a direct result of declining vaccination rates in the U.S. and California has some of the lowest in the country. In some schools, especially in Santa Monica and other wealthy Westside communities, only about 30 or 40 percent of children are vaccinated, primarily due to the “personal-belief exemption” previously allowed under the law.
While one death in 15 years may seem insignificant, it is estimated that in the decade following 1912, the first year we began tracking measles in the U.S., an average of 6,000 people died each year as a result of the disease. In 1963, a vaccine was developed, but in the decade before, an estimated 3 to 4 million people were infected with the disease each year, leading to the death of about 400 to 500 people annually.
Thankfully, we haven’t seen a similar resurgence of another disease eliminated in the U.S. through vaccines: polio, which killed or crippled upwards of half a million people in this country before a vaccine was developed. But such a resurgence is possible if we continue to fail to protect our children.
Thanks to the vision and leadership of people like Allen and Bloom, rationality and medical science have won the day. California is once again on the right path to assure our children a future free from the horrors of these preventable epidemics that, only a few decades ago, ruined lives and devastated families on a massive scale.
Ana Jara, Debbie Mulvaney, Jason Islas, Cynthia Rose, Judy Abdo and Irene Zivi for Santa Monica Forward. Read our previous columns at http://www.santamonicaforward.org/news.