By Laurel Rosenhall
02/05/2015 7:48 AM

With measles breaking out in California 15 years after it was thought to be eradicated, two state senators introduced legislation Wednesday that would make it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their children.

The bill by Democratic Sens. Richard Pan of Sacramento and Ben Allen of Santa Monica is likely to spark intense debate in the state Legislature. Across the state, thousands of parents – largely concentrated in wealthy communities that lean both liberal and conservative – have chosen not to vaccinate their children. They’re able to enroll them in school by filling out a form known as a “personal-belief exemption” that says they are philosophically opposed to immunizations.

But as diseases such as whooping cough and measles re-emerge in California, some lawmakers say it’s time to tighten the state’s vaccination requirements. The new bill would eliminate parents’ ability to seek a personal-belief exemption. That means all children would have to be vaccinated to enroll in school unless they have a medical condition preventing it.

“We do not need to wait for a child to sicken or die before we act. And that’s what we’re doing here today,” Pan said during a Capitol press conference where he was surrounded by mothers holding babies in their arms.

The mothers said they fear that the current measles outbreak that started at Disneyland is especially risky for their little ones, who are too young to get their first measles shot, which typically comes after the first birthday.

Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease – 99 cases had been confirmed in California as of Wednesday. Several moms said they’ve become wary of the potential for exposure during everyday experiences like taking their babies to the grocery store.

“It’s not just an issue of personal choice. This is an issue that effects the whole community,” said Amy Aliferi of West Sacramento, whose baby is not yet a year old.

“We need to protect our children, you need to protect your own children, and protect children in the community at large. It’s a public health issue, it affects everyone.”

The sentiment was echoed in a letter California’s U.S. senators sent Wednesday to the state’s secretary of health and human services.

“While a small number of children cannot be vaccinated due to an underlying medical condition, we believe there should be no such thing as a philosophical or personal-belief exemption, since everyone uses public spaces,” Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein wrote in a letter to California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley. “As we have learned in the past month, parents who refuse to vaccinate their children not only put their own family at risk, but they also endanger other families who choose to vaccinate.”

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