SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Critics blasted a decision by Oregon lawmakers that killed a bill aimed at getting more children vaccinated for measles and other preventable diseases in order pass a tax on large businesses, saying it jeopardized public health.
Despite passing the House and having the necessary votes in the Senate, the measure to make it harder for families to opt out of required vaccinations was nixed as part of a deal announced Monday to end a week-long Republican walkout over a multibillion school funding tax.
Under the vaccination measure, sponsored by state Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, children would only have been be able to forgo vaccine requirements with a doctor’s note, otherwise they’d be unable to attend public school.
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, a Democrat from Beaverton and the bill’s sponsor, said the move prevents the state from protecting its citizens from a public health crisis.
“This isn’t how I want our state to be known,” she said. “This is a major public health issue and it’s critical we address it.”
More than 70 people, including four from Oregon, were diagnosed as part of a months-long outbreak in the Pacific Northwest that public health officials just recently declared over.
“As the recent measles outbreak demonstrated, vaccine-preventable illnesses pose a growing threat due to the relatively low rate of immunizations in the Northwest,” said Robb Cowie, a spokesman with the Oregon Health Authority, the state’s health care agency.
Oregon has the highest rate of unvaccinated kindergartners in the country, with at least 7.5% of toddlers claiming an exemption. In some schools, more than 40% of children are unvaccinated through the state’s lax exemption process. That makes Oregon uniquely susceptible to an outbreak, according to Diane Peterson, associate director for Immunization Action Coalition, which receives funding from the CDC.
“Oregon in particular is a hotbed for a measles outbreak,” Peterson said. “All you need is to introduce one person with the disease into the community and it will spread like wildfire.”
Oregon was one of a number of states proposing to crack down on non-medical exemptions, in response to a national resurgence of measles that has now sickened over 800 people this year, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
The state is one of 17 to allow families to opt out of required school vaccinations for personal, philosophical or religious reasons.
Neighboring Washington state this year passed a law to end all non-medical exemptions for the measles vaccine, while Maine is working to remove its religious and personal exemptions for all vaccines. Some states, including Rhode Island, introduced measures to add exemptions.
The anti-vaccination movement surged in the 1990s, after a study alleged a link between the measles vaccine and the rise of autism. The study has since been discredited.
Mississippi, California and West Virginia are the only states that banned all non-medical exemptions. Mississippi has the highest childhood vaccination rate in the country, while the California law, passed in 2015, caused a significant boost in vaccination numbers.
Republican and Democratic leaders are remaining tight-lipped on why the vaccine issue in particular was targeted as part of the walkout deal.
Steiner Hayward said she wasn’t involved in the negotiations and that she personally received a call from Gov. Kate Brown to tell her the vaccine bill would not move forward this session.
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, from Portland, stressed that the tradeoff was worth it to coax Republicans back to the Capitol and vote on a $1 billion annual boost in school funding. It wasn’t, she said, a response to the vitriolic opposition the proposal has received from hundreds of parents opposed to vaccinating their children.
“The people opposing that bill just behaved reprehensibly around the building,” Burdick said at a news conference Monday. “And one of the things that distresses me is I’m afraid that some of them are going to feel that those tactics worked. Those tactics had nothing to do with what happened.”