With the stroke of a pen, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber on Wednesday created a healthier educational environment for the state's schoolchildren. Kitzhaber signed a bill that makes it more difficult for unvaccinated children to be enrolled in public schools. Parents may still decline to vaccinate their children and may claim exemptions to state immunization laws. But to qualify for that exemption, the new law requires them to visit a doctor or prove they watched an educational video.
Kudos to Kitzhaber and, more directly, to legislators who wrangled long and hard over this issue, divided mostly by lines of political party. Washington state enacted similar legislation in 2011 and the result was a decline in immunization exemptions. Earlier, though, immunization-exemption rates in Washington had more than doubled over the previous decade. As we editorialized in 2011, that discouraging trend leading up to the new law seemed to "defy what's expected in an enlightened society that values scientific discovery."
And that is the fulcrum upon which this debate should be balanced. Although controversies swirl over immunizations, solid science supports legally mandated vaccinations as an effective weapon against outbreaks of communicable diseases. State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, correctly described Oregon's new law as "a triumph of science over fearmongering."
The two most trusted resources for solid science are the most personal of contacts (your family physician), as well as the nationally respected Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which proclaims on http://www.cdc.gov: "We don't vaccinate just to protect our children. We also vaccinate to protect our grandchildren and their grandchildren. … Our children don't have to get smallpox shots any more because the disease no longer exists. If we keep vaccinating now, parents in the future may be able to trust that diseases like polio and meningitis won't infect, cripple, or kill children. Vaccinations are one of the best ways to put an end to the serious effects of certain diseases."
As for physicians, one with advice worth considering is Steiner Hayward (quoted above), who is not only a state senator but a physician at Oregon Health & Science University and a member of the state Senate Health Care and Human Services Committee. She was quoted earlier this month in The Oregonian: "I've seen babies die from whooping cough. I've seen children go deaf from measles, all because people had inaccurate beliefs about immunizations. Our children deserve better than that."
Some legislators complain that this type of legislation is an invasion of parental privacy. The Oregonian also quoted dentist and state Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton: "We are tromping on the rights of a parent to dictate what's best for their kids. We are elevating doctors to gods."
No, not really. No more than requiring a note from a doctor to miss work. This law does not remove parents' right to qualify for an exemption, as long as they obey the law and follow the required procedure. We're glad Washington enacted such a law two years ago; it's good to see Oregon follow suit.