Lawmakers take up bill to allow fewer vaccination exemptions

OLYMPIA — Personal or philosophical opposition to vaccines would not be an authorized exemption for the parents of school-age children under a measure that received a public hearing before a House committee on Tuesday.

More than a dozen parents spoke against the bill, sponsored by Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, that would strip the personal beliefs exemption from the state’s immunization law.

Nearly every parent who spoke had the same message: They must be allowed to choose the course of care for their children free of government coercion.

“Please leave the health care decisions to families,” Ziggy Siegfried of Spokane told members of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.

Josh Swenson of Tumwater said House Bill 2009 “takes away my rights as a parent to protect my children. You cannot force me to hurt my child.”

Ralph Munro, a former Secretary of State, backed the bill. He told lawmakers he helped write the state’s first vaccination law in 1979 “but it has not been enough.”

“Many people today do not realize how dangerous measles can be,” he said. “Every unvaccinated child is a health risk to our community.”

The state Department of Health requires children attending public schools to be vaccinated against infectious diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, polio and whooping cough. They also can enroll if they show proof of acquired immunity to the diseases.

National immunization data from 2013 show 71 percent of Washington children between 19 and 35 months old have received all of their shots on time.

Under state law, parents or guardians can obtain a vaccination exemption for medical, personal or religious beliefs. Washington is one of 20 states which allow for an exemption on philosophical grounds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures

Robinson’s bill would remove that personal belief allowance, which she said makes it too easy for parents to not think about the effect that they’re having on the community. The committee could vote on the bill as early as Wednesday.

Robinson, who works for King County Public Health, acted in response to the measles outbreak that has sickened more than 100 people across the U.S., including in Washington, and in Mexico. No deaths have been reported.

The bill has 27 sponsors and is backed by Gov. Jay Inslee and the Washington State Medical Association.

“Immunizations are safe and effective and save millions of lives,” Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state’s chief health officer, said at the hearing.

Yet, she said, there are schools where the exemption rate is 30 percent to 40 percent and that makes them “tinder boxes” for the potential spread of infectious diseases.

Several parents questioned the safety of vaccines, sharing stories of how their children received vaccinations against one disease only to fall ill from another disease.

“Yes, disease has risk but every vaccine has risks too,” said Audrey Adams of Renton.

Following the hearing, Robinson said the testimony of parents didn’t lessen her resolve. She said she is confident the bill will move forward without changes.

“Most parents want to do the right thing. Most parents immunize their children,” she said. Many of the issues parents talked about in the hearing she said she thought would qualify under the law’s medical exemption.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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