Minnesota ought to follow California’s lead when it comes to aggressively reining in doctors who stoke vaccine conspiracy theories and fail to ensure that their young patients are fully immunized. Physicians here who similarly put children’s health at risk, especially after a 2017 measles outbreak, should be disciplined as well.
The Medical Board of California’s recently announced sanctioning of Dr. Bob Sears, an Orange County pediatrician, is overdue but commendable. Sears is a celebrity in anti-vaccine circles and the author of a book on so-called “alternative” immunization schedules. His office has become a mecca for misinformed parents wanting to exempt their children from California’s tough mandatory vaccine law.
That law, which took effect in 2016, was a sensible response to a large measles outbreak among kids who had visited Disneyland theme parks. Parents must now seek and get medical approval if they want to forgo the shots. Before, the state allowed parents to cite personal beliefs — a dangerous loophole, one unfortunately still on the books in Minnesota and one that allows too many children to go unprotected from childhood diseases.
The Sears disciplinary action stems from an exemption to the vaccine law that he provided for a 2-year-old. According to the complaint the board filed against him, Sears was “grossly negligent in his care” of the child and “departed from the standard of care in that he did not obtain basic information necessary for decisionmaking, prior to determining to exclude the possibility of future vaccines.”
In a settlement announced June 27, Sears maintained his license to practice, but agreed to have another doctor monitor him. There are additional limits on his practice, and he’s required to take 40 hours of medical education courses, according to a Los Angeles Times story.
Regrettably, there are Minnesota providers who, like Sears, have built practices catering to parents embracing vaccine safety conspiracies. It’s time for both the state Legislature and the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice to take strong action to protect children’s health.
It’s indefensible that so little has been done since a 2017 measles outbreak in Minnesota. The median age of those who became ill was 21 months. The outbreak’s epicenter was the state’s Somali-American community, which has been targeted by anti-vaccine activists who ignore the robust science supporting vaccine safety and recklessly encourage families to forgo the required shots. The state’s overly broad personal belief exemption makes this too easy to do.
Bills in the Legislature to tighten this exemption have unfortunately gone nowhere despite repeated introductions and support from the state’s leading medical organizations. That needs to change in 2019. Lawmakers also need to clearly direct the Board of Medical Practice to seek out and sanction doctors abetting vaccine conspiracy theories. The board currently requires a complaint to initiate an investigation of a doctor. But the alarming public health risks of forgoing vaccinations, and the malignant spread of disinformation about the shots, require a proactive, not a reactive, approach. A bill making it clear that no complaint is needed to start an investigation is overdue, though the Star Tribune Editorial Board also encourages the Board of Medical Practice to pursue policy changes to make this happen.
Legislation like this to protect children from common childhood diseases should be a patch of common ground. A state that is a health care standout nationally should have some of the nation’s toughest vaccination laws and policies in place, not the weak ones it currently has.