Measles outbreak revives debate over vaccine laws
A measles outbreak near Portland, Ore., has revived a bitter debate over so-called “philosophical” exemptions to childhood vaccinations as public health officials across the Pacific Northwest scramble to limit the fallout.
At least 43 people in Washington and Oregon have fallen ill in recent weeks with the extraordinarily contagious virus, which was eradicated in the U.S. in 2000 as a result of immunization but arrives periodically with overseas travelers. More than a dozen more cases are suspected, and people who were exposed to the disease traveled to Hawaii and Bend, Ore., raising the possibility of more diagnoses in the unvaccinated.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee last week declared a state of emergency because of the outbreak.
“I would hope that this ends soon, but this could go on for weeks, if not months,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, public health director in Clark County, Wash., just north of Portland. The county has had most of the diagnosed cases so far. “This is an exquisitely contagious disease.”
The outbreak has lawmakers in Washington state revisiting nonmedical exemptions that allow children to attend school without vaccinations if their parents or guardians express a personal objection. Liberal-leaning Oregon and Washington have some of the nation’s highest statewide vaccine exemption rates, driven in part by low vaccination levels in scattered communities and at some private and alternative schools.
Four percent of Washington secondary-school students have nonmedical vaccine exemptions. In Oregon, which has a similar law, 7.5 percent of kindergarteners in 2018 were missing shots for nonmedical reasons.
Washington and Oregon are among 17 states that allow some type of non-medical exemption for vaccines for “personal, moral or other beliefs,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Numerous studies have shown vaccines do not cause autism – a common reason cited by those who don’t want their kids immunized. Those opposed to certain vaccines also object to an outside authority mandating what they put in their children’s bodies, and some have concerns about the combination of the measles vaccine with the mumps and rubella immunizations, which is how it’s routinely given.
A measure introduced by Republican Rep. Paul Harris of Vancouver, Wash. – the epicenter of the current outbreak – would remove the personal exemption specifically for the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, or MMR. It’s scheduled for a public hearing in Olympia on Feb. 8.