ARUN RATH, HOST:
California is on the brink of passing a law that would require nearly all children to be vaccinated in order to attend school. From member station KQED in San Francisco, April Dembosky explains the bill has strong and vocal opposition.
APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: There's actually a long history to the anti-vaccination movement. Elena Conis is a history professor at Emory University.
ELENA CONIS: From the moment the very first vaccine came on the scene, which was the smallpox vaccine, there has been resistance to vaccines and vaccination.
DEMBOSKY: The modern-day resistance movement shares its roosts and rhetoric with social movements of the 1960s and '70s, feminism, environmentalism and consumer rights.
CONIS: What a number of these social movements had in common was that they encouraged people to question sources of authority.
DEMBOSKY: Including doctors. For example, women's advocates started to question medical advice on reproductive health and childbirth.
CONIS: Women also start opting to increasingly use midwives, have births outside the hospital and also reject professional advice about formula feeding over breast-feeding - things like that.
DEMBOSKY: Conis says this is the backdrop for a list of vaccine recommendations that has grown longer and longer over the last generation. It can be overwhelming for today's parents to watch their babies cry through one shot after another. George McCann is a general contractor and father of two daughters who live north of San Francisco.
GEORGE MCCANN: We started looking at the vaccine schedule and how intense and frequent these vaccines seemed to come up.
DEMBOSKY: He and his wife decided to have their girls get some vaccines but not all. They skipped pneumonia and chicken pox and chose to wait on polio until the girls were older.
MCCANN: The whole issue for me comes down to the idea that somehow the state would get to mandate that all of us have to do something as if we don't have the ability the look into this with compassion and intelligence and critical thinking on behalf of our children.
DEMBOSKY: But Carl Krawitt says what about other people's children? His son couldn't get vaccinated while he was being treated for leukemia. He depended on others to be immunized so they couldn't spread potentially deadly diseases.
CARL KRAWITT: And people take personal freedoms to such an extreme that they forget about the community.
DEMBOSKY: These are the types of parental debates Dr. Matt Willis is navigating. He's the public health officer in for Marin County. In some communities there only half the kids are fully vaccinated. His office is trying to figure out why. It did a survey and found a few common characteristics of today's parents who don't vaccinate.
MATT WILLIS: A higher proportion were choosing to get their information from the Internet, and a higher number of the parents were seeing alternative medical providers.
DEMBOSKY: Willis has developed a list of talking points for each vaccine. He tells parents there's no link between the measles vaccine and autism. But polio is probably his toughest sell. American parents today have no memory of how horrible the disease is, and he reminds them, viruses can travel.
WILLIS: It's really just one plane ride away.
DEMBOSKY: Willis tells parent who want to delay some vaccines to think of it like a seatbelt.
WILLIS: You could choose to, you know, put them in their safety belt as you leave your driveway and start driving, or you could choose to, you know, pull over 10 miles later and put it on.
DEMBOSKY: Willis is hoping California's governor will sign the bill prohibiting parents from opting out of vaccines for religious or personal beliefs.
WILLIS: It will certainly make my job a lot easier.
DEMBOSKY: He says controlling a disease outbreak is like fighting a fire.
WILLIS: It's much easier to prevent a fire from happening in the first place than it is to try and extinguish it once it's spreading.
DEMBOSKY: If passed, the law would take effect January 1. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in San Francisco.
RATH: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KQED and Kaiser Health News.