In a report published this year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation noted that childhood deaths worldwide have been declining annually for more than a quarter-century.
"More children survived in 2015 than in 2014. More survived in 2014 than in 2013, and so on," the report said. "If you add it all up, 122 million children under age five have been saved over the past 25 years. These are children who would have died if mortality rates had stayed where they were in 1990."
The main reason: vaccination.
California passed a law tightening vaccination requirements for schoolchildren after a widespread — and entirely avoidable — measles outbreak that started at Disneyland in late 2014, which followed by a few months the largest outbreak of whooping cough in a half-century. The law's impact was immediate, with the vaccination rate for incoming kindergartners soaring to 95.6 percent in 2016, the first year after the law took effect.
Experts say 95 percent is sufficient to prevent contagious diseases such as measles, whooping cough and chickenpox from spreading.
That should be comforting news for parents and children alike. However, as a new school year gets underway this week, state data show that students at hundreds of schools remain needlessly at risk of potentially fatal diseases.
An analysis by the Los Angeles Times found nearly 750 schools statewide, including 18 in Sonoma County and five in Mendocino County, where vaccination rates are at or below 90 percent. At four local schools, fewer than 55 percent of incoming kindergartners were fully vaccinated during the most recent school year.
It seems that old myths die hard. Too many parents are still clinging to thoroughly debunked claims that childhood vaccinations can cause autism. Others are skeptical of all pharmaceuticals. Many of those parents relied on widely abused exemptions for personal and religious beliefs to get around vaccination requirements.
But the risk of contracting a disease extends beyond unvaccinated children, and children whose immunity isn't complete are entitled to protection at school.
That's why California's updated law eliminated the exemptions for personal and religious objections. The law retained an exemption for medical reasons, including certain allergies and for students who are undergoing chemotherapy and cannot be vaccinated.
That shouldn't exceed 3 percent of schoolchildren, according to public health experts. However, more than 20 percent of kindergartners at some schools claimed medical exemptions in 2016. That's a red flag. Legislators or the state Medical Board should ensure that such exemptions aren't becoming a profit center for unscrupulous doctors.
The lowest vaccination rates tend to be at private and charter schools, and even some educators are uneasy about the potential for a serious outbreak.
One of them is Chris Topham, the executive director at Sebastopol Independent Charter School, where 11 of 45 kindergartners claimed medical exemptions last year. "I would be concerned if there was an outbreak," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Safety for a school leader is always No. 1, even before education, frankly."
California has required vaccinations for schoolchildren in some form since 1899. The science is sound. So is the goal: protecting children's health. They deserve nothing less.