When state Rep. June Robinson of Everett thought of the issues she wanted to focus on in this year’s session, rewriting rules for vaccinations wasn’t one of them.
But outbreaks of flu and measles changed her mind.
On Wednesday, she introduced a bill that would no longer allow parents to not vaccinate their child because of personal beliefs.
“I didn’t come to the Legislature planning to drop this bill. But the outbreaks are coming more quickly one after another,” she said Thursday. “We have got to get a handle on this.”
Health officials agree.
Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District, said he feels the proposed legislation “is very appropriate.”
“I support every child being vaccinated,” he said. “Anyone who chooses not to vaccinate a child is misunderstanding the science and is not appreciating the potential harms these diseases can cause children.”
In 2012, a 27-day-old Lake Stevens infant died from whooping cough, a vaccine-preventable disease, he said.
Public Health Seattle &King County supports the bill, too, said spokesman James Apa. Robinson works at the public health agency as a program manager.
Dr. Tom Tocher, chief clinical officer for the nonprofit Community Health Center of Snohomish County, said he thinks the legislation “is a good thing.”
The public has gotten a little complacent about vaccines, he said. People had rarely seen measles until the recent outbreak in California, which has now spread to 14 states, including Washington, and Mexico. “People are freaking out,” Tocher said.
Dr. Jeff Hambleton, chief medical officer for Providence Medical Group, said he supports measures to help improve immunization rates, but would like to hear more about how similar legislation in other states has fared. “I’d like to see the evidence that it’s helpful,” Hambleton said. “In concept, this seems like a reasonable strategy. I want to know for sure it just won’t make people more angry and create more backlash. I want families to feel good about getting their children immunized.”
The state Department of Health requires children attending public schools to be vaccinated against preventable diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, measles and pertussis or whooping cough. They also can enroll if they show proof of acquired immunity to the diseases.
Under state law, vaccination exemptions can be obtained for medical, personal or religious beliefs. Robinson’s bill would remove the personal belief exemption, which the legislator said makes it too easy for parents to not think about the effect that they’re having on the community.
School officials concerned by the number of students with vaccination exemptions say they are glad attention is being brought to the issue.
Deb Merle, director of government relations for the Washington State School Directors Association, said the organization is concerned over the apparent proliferation of non-immunized kids and the effects on student safety and health. But the organization hasn’t had time to thoroughly study the bill, she said.
Darren Spencer, who manages health services for the Edmonds School District said he supports the legislation. “Our belief is that vaccinations are proven to ensure not only the safety of our students, but our community as a whole,” he said. “Anything that’s going to increase the number of kids in our schools being vaccinated our district would support.”
The Everett School District supports efforts to increase the health and safety of students in schools, said Gary Cohn, the district’s superintendent. “Most doctors and health experts — including our own Snohomish Health District — can show research that vaccines protect the child who is vaccinated and others around that child,” he said.
Robinson said she’s received a “very positive reaction” from colleagues, mostly supportive calls from constituents, thanks from educators and pediatricians and even a robust round of applause from a gathering of public health officials in Olympia.
“I knew it was in the news. I really didn’t know it would be as big as it has been,” Robinson, a Democrat, said of the response.
Lawmakers reached Thursday said they want to protect public health while respecting the rights of parents to decide what’s in the best interest of their children.
“I’m a little bit torn,” admitted Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, a member of the Senate Health Care Committee.
“I really do believe that people should have the right to the personal belief exemption if they choose not to put their child in a public school,” she said. “However, that being said, I think there is enough evidence that when you bring your child into a public setting like a public school, all children should be vaccinated.”
No hearings have been scheduled yet on Robinson’s bill, but it is certain to ignite passions if it reaches the floor of each chamber.
A long and impassioned debate preceded passage of a law in 2011, championed by Bailey, then a state representative. It added a requirement for parents to provide proof, in the form of a signed statement, that they had received information from a health care provider about the benefits and risks of vaccinations.
People who can demonstrate membership in a religious group that does not believe in medical treatment are exempted from this requirement.
Jerry Cornfield 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org