Washington lawmakers heard from both vaccine skeptics and supporters during the first public hearing Friday morning for a bill that would remove the state’s personal exemption for the measles mumps and rubella vaccination.
Clark County is currently in the midst of a measles outbreak with 53 confirmed cases as of Friday afternoon. Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a public health emergency in response to the outbreak, which local officials have described as a drain on resources.
In response, state Reps. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, and Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, have introduced House Bill 1638, which would eliminate the state’s personal exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine for attendance in public and private schools and licensed daycare centers. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while all 50 states require vaccines for students, 18 states, including Washington, allow families to claim a personal or philosophical exemption.
“This is an issue that is front and center in our community right now,” said Stonier at the hearing.
In 2015, a bill was introduced to eliminate the personal exemption for all vaccines, but it died after getting pushback from lawmakers concerned about parents’ rights. While Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, has introduced a similar bill this session, the legislation sponsored by Stonier and Harris only targets the exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine
Speaking at the hearing, Harris said that he didn’t introduce the bill lightly. He also said he heard about children in Clark County who couldn’t venture out into public because their compromised immune systems left them unable to be vaccinated for the highly contagious disease.
During the hearing, members of the House Committee on Health Care and Wellness heard from public health officials, leaders of medical associations and others who support the measure.
“This bill, simply put, is about safe schools and protecting vulnerable children,” Dr. John Wiesman, Washington State Department of Health secretary, told the committee.
He said that Washington has had three large outbreaks of measles in the last 10 years that resulted in the death of one person with a compromised immune system.
Calling the current outbreak “totally preventable,” he said that pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems depend on others to get vaccinated. He said the vaccine is safe and effective. He said that serious adverse effects caused by the vaccine are very rare and no reputable study has shown it to cause autism.
“The benefit of the vaccine outweighs the risk,” said Wiesman. He said that one in 20 people who contract measles get pneumonia, and one in a thousand will develop encephalitis, a serious brain infection. Two children out of a thousand who contract measles will die, he said.
He said that states with tighter exemption laws have less disease and higher immunization rates, meaning fewer deaths and less suffering.
Dr. Roy Magnuson, system vice president for Medical Affairs at PeaceHealth, also testified in support of the bill. Clark County Councilor John Blom also spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of the county. Both noted how the outbreak had strained health care and public health resources.
The panel also heard from others who questioned the safety of vaccines and argued that the science over immunizations isn’t settled.
“Vaccines are not safe and effective for everyone,” said Dr. Toni Bark, an Illinois medical doctor.
Describing the issue as a “complex picture,” she said that vaccines affect people differently and some may be more likely to have adverse reactions.
Robert Kennedy, Jr., a notable environmental activist, questioned if the vaccine had been fully vetted for safety.
“Nobody knows the risk profile of MMR vaccine,” he said. “And that is deliberate.”
Mary Holland, a professor at New York University School of Law, asked the committee not to adopt what she described as a coercive measure that violates informed consent. She said that if the bill is passed it’ll just drive families “underground” rather than them getting their kids vaccinated.
At a press event following the hearing, Harris pushed back on the idea that people would go underground rather than get vaccinated. He pointed to California, which saw its vaccination rates increase after adopting similar legislation.
Dr. Kathy Lofy, the State Health Officer and the Chief Science Officer, responded to an assertion made during the hearing that the vaccine has caused around 400 deaths. She said that figure possibly came from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. She said that anyone can report an adverse event to the federal database but it doesn’t mean it’s been verified as having been caused by a vaccination.
She also said that before the vaccine was implemented in the U.S., around 500 people died from measles annually. She said she wasn’t aware of any data showing people dying from the vaccine.
“We believe the vaccine is incredibly safe,” added Dr. Rupin Thakkar, president of the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Harris said that he would submit an amendment to the bill to “tighten up” the state’s religious exemption to make sure those claiming it have “bona fide” reasons for doing so.
“I find it fascinating that vaccines are causing this big of a deal, to be quite frank with you,” said Harris.