Washington lawmakers weigh vaccine bill amid outbreak

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By Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Amid a measles outbreak that has sickened more than 50 people in the Pacific Northwest, Washington lawmakers heard testimony Friday on a bill that would remove parents’ ability to claim a personal or philosophical exemption to opt their school-age children out of the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

Hundreds of people opposed to the measure lined up more than an hour before the start of the hearing before the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, many wearing stickers with the bill number, HB 1638, within a crossed out circle.

The bill comes as health officials have reported at least 52 known cases in Washington state and four in Oregon. Most of the Washington cases are concentrated in Clark County, just north of Portland, Oregon. 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.

Currently, the state allows school-vaccination exemptions for children at public or private schools or licensed day-care centers based on medical, religious and personal or philosophical beliefs. Unless an exemption is claimed, a child is required to be vaccinated against or show proof of acquired immunity of nearly a dozen diseases — including polio, whooping cough and mumps — before they can attend school or a child care center.

John Wiesman, the secretary of the state Department of Health, said the effort to limit exemptions is “about safe schools and protecting vulnerable children.”

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.”

Opponents testifying against the bill included environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who questioned safety standards around vaccines.

Susie Corgan, with Informed Choice Washington, said after the hearing that parents who are worried about their children having adverse reactions to vaccines have a right to philosophical exemptions.

“Where there is risk, there must be choice, and there is risk with this vaccine as there is with any other medical procedure,” she said.