While the measles outbreak in Clark County reached 63 confirmed cases as of Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers in Olympia heard from supporters and opponents of a bill that would eliminate the most widely used exemption to the state’s vaccine requirements.
Sponsored by Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, Senate Bill 5841 would eliminate Washington’s philosophical or personal exemption for vaccinations children must receive in order to attend school or a licensed day care facility. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all 50 states require students to be vaccinated in order to attend school, with exceptions for medical conditions. Seventeen states allow families to opt out of vaccination requirements for philosophical or personal reasons.
Since the measles outbreak started in Clark County in January, the personal exemption has come under scrutiny by Clark County lawmakers and others. A bill introduced earlier by state Reps. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, and Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, would eliminate the personal exemption just for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Cleveland’s bill would abolish the exemption for all vaccination requirements. Both bills would keep the state’s vaccination exemption on religious grounds.
At a hearing of the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee on Wednesday, Cleveland told the packed room that the measles outbreak threatens the health of children too young to receive the vaccination as well as people who can’t be immunized due to compromised immune systems.
“People throughout our communities feel they should be able to send their kids to school and go out in public in general without the risk of being exposed to a serious health threat,” said Cleveland, the committee’s chair. “I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation, and I see it as our responsibility as legislators to ensure that public health is protected.”
She cited figures showing that for the 2017-2018 school year, the rate of kindergartners who were exempted from vaccines for a personal reason was 3.7 percent, compared with 0.2 percent for religious reasons and 0.8 percent for medical reasons. She said that removing the personal exemption would reduce the percentage of unvaccinated children from 4.7 percent to 1 percent, an overall reduction of more than 75 percent.
Dr. John Wiesman, the state secretary of health, spoke in favor of the bill. He told the committee that while the statewide vaccination rate may be high, there are some schools that have 40 to 60 percent of kids unvaccinated. In those schools, diseases such as measles can spread easily.
“Those situations are really tinderboxes waiting to go up in flames,” he said.
Dr. Elias Kass, a Seattle physician, told the committee that sometimes parents are overwhelmed with information about vaccines and that the personal exemption allows “indecision to stand as the decision.” He added that the exemption also allows doctors to brush off having difficult conversations about vaccinations with parents.
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said that the committee had received numerous emails about the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a federal monitor that receives reports of possible safety issues posed by vaccines.
Kass said that anyone can report a problem with a vaccine to the system, which he said is used to monitor reoccurring issues. He said that reports are compared with broader data sets to find problems with vaccines. He pointed to how the rotavirus vaccine was removed from the market after the system determined it caused bowel blockage in some patients.
The committee also heard from people resistant to removing the exemption. Jill Collier, who identified herself as a registered nurse, told the committee that the science on vaccinations isn’t settled. She said that not every child is built to handle every vaccine and that the state shouldn’t be legislating patient care.
“That is not safe medical care; that is not patient consent,” she said.
Karl Kanthak, board president for the Mount Pleasant School District, said that some schools may appear to have a large concentration of unvaccinated students. But he said that just a few unvaccinated students in a small school may be enough to push its percentage of unvaccinated students up significantly.
He also said that after California removed its personal exemption some families resettled in his school district, which includes parts of Clark and Skamania counties. He said that if Washington removes the exemption, they’ll leave this state too.