Olympia, Washington: With more than 50 cases of measles in Washington state, there’s been a new push to change the law. Washington is one of 17 states that allow parents to refuse vaccines for philosophical reasons.
But on Friday, hundreds rallied to preserve their right not to vaccinate their children. Lawmakers heard arguments on a proposed bill that would ban the measles vaccine exemption for philosophical reasons. Thirty-two other states have similar laws.
Measles is so contagious that an unvaccinated person has a 90 percent chance of catching the disease if they’re near someone who has it. The virus can survive for up to two hours in a room where an infected person sneezed.
Measles vaccination rates here, at the epicenter of the outbreak, are now up by 500 percent.
The measure is sponsored by a lawmaker from that region, Republican Rep. Paul Harris of Vancouver, and has the support of the state medical association and Gov. Jay Inslee. Inslee declared a state of emergency last month.
Harris said people in his area are “concerned about our community, its immunity and the community safety.”
The measure does allow proof of disease immunity through laboratory evidence or history of disease to substitute for immunization.
“I think we’re seeing people rush to the doctor now because it’s real and it’s been growing every week. And so folks actually see a real threat,” said Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman.
Wiesman told the panel that compared to other outbreaks in the state in the past decade, “the outbreak we are dealing with right now is larger and infecting people faster than recent history.”
But opponents of the bill still think the measles vaccine is a bigger threat than the disease itself.
“I don’t feel I’m putting my child at risk. There’s nothing that’s going to change my mind on this on that specific vaccination,” said mother Monique Murray.
The CDC insists the two-dose measles vaccine is safe and 97 percent effective. Washington lawmakers hope to get the measure passed by April.
Measles is a highly contagious disease that can result in brain damage, deafness and, in rare cases, death. In 2000, measles was declared eliminated from the United States, thanks to widespread vaccination campaigns.
Yet cases have popped up in 11 states so far this winter, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking three outbreaks (defined as three or more confirmed cases) in New York City, New York state and Washington state.
Vaccination rates around 90 to 95 percent are generally enough to prevent an outbreak, according to health officials, but rates have fallen across the United States.
One factor is the spread of misinformation about the measles vaccine, which is considered safe and effective by health authorities.
Vaccination rates in the Pacific Northwest are among the lowest in the nation. While all school-age children are required to receive the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella, Washington is among the 17 states that allow “philosophical exemptions,” meaning a parent can excuse a child from being vaccinated for virtually any reason.
Currently the vaccination rate across Clark County is 78 percent, but some schools in the area have rates under 40 percent, according to the Clark County Public Health website. Such low rates have public health officials working around the clock to contain the outbreak.
In Washington state, there are three ways to exempt your child from the immunization requirements in school.
One is a medical exemption, which is really rare. There are very few medical contraindications to immunization.
There is a religious exemption that’s also rarely used, because there aren’t many religions I can think of that say, “Thou shalt not vaccinate your child.”
So the vast majority of exemptions are personal or philosophical. California got rid of their personal exemption a few years ago after the Disneyland outbreak.