Chelsea Mancilla, Guest Writer
A heated discussion about vaccinations has emerged in Olympia, Wash. as a result of the measles outbreak in Clark County, with 65 confirmed cases reported since Feb 26. Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a public health emergency in response to the outbreak, which local officials have described as a drain on resources.
“This is an issue that is front and center in our community right now,” said Representative Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver at the hearing for House Bill 1638. Reps. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, and 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.
Similarly, the Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee proposed a broader bill which would not allow personal or philosophical exemptions to be granted for any required school vaccinations. It is expected to take a vote on the measure Friday, March 1st. The Senate bill would add vaccinations for chickenpox, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, and hepatitis B to the list of diseases that could only be exempted for religious or medical reasons. Under current law, parents can refuse all of those vaccines, plus the MMR vaccine, by signing a statement saying they have a philosophical or personal objection to the immunization of their child.
Hundreds of people who oppose the measure lined up in front of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee more than an hour before the start of the hearing, many wearing stickers with the bill number, HB 1638 within a crossed-out circle.
Jill Collier, a registered nurse, told lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing for HB 1638 that she didn’t consider herself anti-vaccine, but was opposed to the bill because the doctor-patient relationship would be harmed by legislative requirements on medical procedures like vaccines. “We cannot blanket mandate an injection for a child and hold their education hostage for noncompliance,” Collier said.
This is not the first time there has been a bill proposed to eliminate personal exemptions for vaccines. 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 Harris and Stonier only targets the exemption for the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines.
Currently, Washington is one of the 17 states that allows parents to refuse to vaccinate their children for philosophical reasons, according to a 50-state analysis of data tracked by the Immunization Action Coalition and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). In the past four years, California removed personal belief vaccine exemptions for children in both public and private schools, after a measles outbreak at Disneyland sickened 147 people and spread across the U.S. and into Canada. Non-medical exemptions have been granted to Washington residents since mandated immunizations began in the state in 1979.
“What keeps me up at night is eventually having a child die from this completely preventable situation,” said Alan Melnick Ph.D, Clark County public health director. “It’s still out there, even though it’s been debunked, that the measles vaccine results in autism. That’s nonsense.” Washington has one of the most lenient exemption policies in the nation, which allowed parents to simply submit the form without consulting a physician.
John Wiesman, the Secretary of the State Department of Health, said in a news conference before Wednesday’s hearing that the legislative efforts are “…about keeping our kids safe from unnecessary diseases.”
“The current measles outbreak in Clark County has highlighted just how dangerous the situation can be and how quickly an infectious disease like measles can just take off,” he said. 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 and that serious adverse effects caused by the vaccine are very rare with no reputable study to show it has any links to autism.