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Sen. Cleveland plans stricter vaccine bill, removes opt-out for more than MMR

By , Columbian political reporter
Published: January 31, 2019, 4:04pm

Nearly a week after Washington lawmakers introduced legislation that would eliminate the state’s personal exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, has announced she’ll introduce a more expansive bill that would remove the opt-out for other immunizations.

The legislation comes amid an outbreak of measles in Clark County, which had reached 41 confirmed cases as of Thursday afternoon. Gov. Jay Inslee declared a public health emergency in response to the outbreak, which had spread to Oregon and the Seattle area.

Washington is one of 18 states that allow families to exempt children in public schools from vaccinations for personal or philosophical reasons. Clark County has a higher exemption rate than the rest of the state, which helped make the outbreak possible.

In response, Reps. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, and Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, have sponsored legislation that would eliminate the state’s personal exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Their bill, House Bill 1638, would still allow the personal exemption for other vaccines. Families could also still use medical and religious exemptions allowed under state law.

The bill introduced by Cleveland, who chairs the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee, would do away with the personal exemption for required vaccinations that immunize children from polio, measles, chicken pox, pneumococcal disease and other illnesses, according to a news release. The legislation would keep the state’s religious and medical exemptions.

“Vaccinations protect not just the children who receive them, but others throughout the community,” Cleveland said in a news release. “First and foremost, widespread vaccinations make it difficult for a disease to gain a foothold in a community. Second, reducing the potential exposure helps protect those who are unable to receive vaccinations, such as newborns or individuals with chronic illnesses.”

Cleveland’s news release pointed out that the personal exemption is the most commonly used exemption in Washington. According to state Department of Health statistics covering 2017-2018, nearly 5 percent of students statewide had used an exemption, with 3.7 percent claiming a personal exemption. Nearly 6 percent of children enrolled in public and private schools in Clark County had claimed a personal exemption for some vaccine.

In 2015, the Legislature considered legislation that would have removed the personal exemption, but the bill did not pass. At the time, Republicans in Clark County’s legislative delegation were unsupportive of the legislation out of concerns it would infringe on parents’ rights.

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said in an email that while she’s not anti-vaccination and understands why the legislation would have some appeal, she believed in the “right of parents to have more say than the government does when it comes to their children’s health care.”

“When a bill presents a choice between siding with the government and siding with parents, I’m not inclined to give the state more influence over people’s lives,” Wilson said.

Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, also said in an email that she was opposed to taking away a parent’s right to make decisions regarding their health care.

“This summer I talked at length with a mom whose young child was disabled from a vaccination,” Kraft said. “These situations are real and do happen. You can’t undo that damage once it’s been done.”

Inslee supported the 2015 legislation and has indicated he’s supportive of the bill sponsored by Harris and Stonier. Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said in an email that he will consider any bills that come to his desk from the Legislature.

“Broadly speaking, he does support legislation to remove personal exemptions,” Lee said.

Harris and Stonier, as well as other members of Clark County’s legislative delegation, could not be reached for comment. Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said in a text that, while she hadn’t seen the language of Cleveland’s legislation, she was inclined to support either bill.

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