OLYMPIA – A proposal to end the personal exemption for parents who don’t want their children vaccinated against measles was sent Monday to the full Senate with Republicans calling it an attack on personal freedom and Democrats defending it as good science.
The Legislature has wrestled for several months with efforts to narrow the exemption to childhood vaccines required for enrollment in public schools after a measles outbreak in Vancouver started in January.
The proposal approved by the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee still would allow medical and religious exemptions to the measles, mumps and rubella or MMR vaccination, but would eliminate the “personal or philosophical” exemption for those shots.
It already passed the House, but is less restrictive than a bill the committee previously passed that would have removed the personal exemption for all childhood vaccinations. That bill never came to a vote in the Senate.
“Personal choice should never be a problem,” Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, said. “What is the next thing when we’re going to say ‘We need herd mentality’? ”
That prompted Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, to suggest Becker was confusing her terms. Health officials were talking about ending the personal exemption to create “herd immunity,” she said, when 95 percent or more of the public is vaccinated so the population as a whole is safe.
“It is not a mentality, it’s a scientific fact,” Keiser said. “We don’t have alternative facts here.”
People should no more have personal choice on vaccinations than a homeowner has the personal choice to build a fire in their backyard at the height of fire season, she said.
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, accused Democrats of rushing into a decision on the MMR vaccination “so we can thump our chest.”
“There will be those who say this is really a joyous day in Washington state,” Rivers said. “But you know, this is a really sad day because we are taking away a parent’s right to make a very important decision and perhaps signing a death warrant for some of these kids who shouldn’t have this for medical reasons.”
But Committee Chairwoman Annette Cleveland, a Democrat from Vancouver where 73 cases of measles have been reported in the last three months, said parents will still have input because medical exemptions will continue.
“It’s certainly not a joyous day in the state of Washington when any family has to watch their child succumb to a disease that at one point had been eradicated,” Cleveland said.
Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, offered an amendment to retain the personal exemption but appoint a work group to study the issue. But Cleveland argued a work group won’t address a public health emergency.