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To the State of California: Thank You for Serving as a Model for Reason and Childhood Health

A bill recently signed into law by the California State Legislature, SB792, had its share of both supporters and critics. This bill ignites passion from many groups including parents, child health advocates, and civil libertarians alike. In a rare and unique set of circumstances, members of any of those factions can be found on either side of the issue. What could possibly make this bill so curiously divisive among common interests? Mandatory vaccinations.

Rep. Tony Mendoza speaking on SB792 [Image: CaliforniaNewswire]

SB792 requires mandatory immunization for all childcare workers against diseases with deadly outcomes for infants and young children including pertussis (‘whooping cough’). California is in the midst of an ongoing pertussis epidemic which has led to tragic outcomes for many families. The disease, caused by the bacterial species Bordetella pertussis, is notably difficult to treat because the window to kill the organism with antibiotics is very short. If this window, occurring at the onset of symptoms when a diagnosis is rarely made, is missed the chance to stave off more severe disease is lost. This is because B. pertussis has a nasty weapon to deploy: a toxin that is unaffected by antibiotics. This toxin kills cells in the airway and lungs, resulting in the buildup of damaged and inflamed tissue. Such tissue leads to the characteristic cough of pertussis, and it rarely heals fully in children who survive. Disease in adults is a different matter. For reasons having largely to do with physical, anatomical differences, it is milder. An adult with pertussis may not be properly diagnosed, or an adult infected with B. pertussis may not show any symptoms at all.

This is the crux of the matter for SB792: these adults are still contagious, and can infect unvaccinated or partially immunized children. These children will develop ‘whooping cough’, not the mild presentation that the adult who infected them had. These children are at risk for lifelong respiratory problems. Their families are at risk of losing a beloved child. Most daycare-aged children are not old enough to be fully immunized, and their best and often only protection is the immunity of their family and caretakers.

This is not an abstract idea to us. This concept has a name, and a face, and a family. In our world, her name was Callie Van Tornhout, and she passed away after falling ill with pertussis when she was just 38 days old. Callie was too young to be vaccinated, and even though no one around her seemed sick, she was somehow infected. Callie was not a theoretical “1 in 1,000” child. She was a beautiful baby girl. This could have happened to any infant her age, but it happened to her, and to our family. Championing the cause of child and adult pertussis immunization has become Callie’s legacy, and the way we strive to make sure that another family doesn’t needlessly lose a daughter, a son, a sister, or a brother.

Daycare providers are given the highest act of trust that any parent can provide: the responsibility to care for our children. Being fully vaccinated is one of the most important ways to carry that responsibility out. We understand that there are those who think vaccines are dangerous: they are not. We understand that there are those who think these diseases are not perilous: they are. As for those who argue that any medical intervention is a choice, and anyone has a right to refuse? We don’t disagree; however, children have a right to a full, happy, and healthy life. We are grateful to Senator Mendoza for recognizing that and taking action by introducing SB792. Further, we are grateful to the State of California for adopting this measure. Lives will be saved.

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