SALEM -- A measles outbreak in southwest Washington has added urgency for Oregon lawmakers as they consider tightening the state's school vaccination requirements, which are considered some of the most relaxed in the country.
More than 65 people, many of them unvaccinated children, have been sickened with measles in Clark County, Washington.
"It's not a theoretical discussion anymore. It's a very practical discussion," said Rep. Mitch Greenlick, the Portland Democrat behind a proposal making it more difficult for families to opt out of vaccine requirements. "We’re talking about a real example of what happens if no one vaccinates their kids."
State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, testified against the bill, saying that the proposal raises more questions than there are answers about issue, as well as the tenor of the current debate.
“I believe in the value of many vaccines for protecting our children. A solid majority of the people I represent would agree that they have important benefits,” Golden said, according to the transcript of his remarks posted on his official website.
“At the same time, on behalf of those same people, I ask you to consider the possibility that this particular bill could cause us to look back in ten or fifteen years, as we have before with too many products that rack up massive special-interest profits as we ignored those who questioned their longterm effects, and say, ‘what were we thinking?’” Golden said.
Under the bill, children would have to receive vaccinations in order to attend school, unless they have a doctor’s note seeking an exemption for medical reasons.
Parents would no longer be able to claim vaccine exemptions for religious, personal or philosophical reasons. Washington state lawmakers are considering a similar measure this year.
Only three states — California, Mississippi and West Virginia — prohibit nearly all exemptions.
Greenlick’s proposal met considerable pushback during a crowded hearing Thursday, which drew hundreds of parents to the Capitol to speak against the measure, which they say is discriminatory and a form of government overreach.
"The government’s authority ends at my skin,” said Breeauna Sagdal, a parent and advocate, outside the packed hearing room. “It’s my body, it’s my family and it’s my choice. And they can pass whatever law they want. I’m not following it.”
Legislators from both parties have lined up in favor and against the bill.
“I’m especially bothered by how quickly, sometimes contemptuously, those questioning our vaccine protocols are dismissed as zealous flakes who don’t know what they’re talking about and deny clear science,” Golden said, according to the transcript. “... Some of them, including some physicians and parents with of vaccine-injured children, are anything but ignorant; they have researched these topics with care and intellectual honesty, and most of them are NOT what’s been called “antivaxxers” — they do vaccinate their children for some diseases.”
Greenlick pushed back, saying that only half the children in a school in Golden’s district have been vaccinated. He wondered what would happen if there was an outbreak at that school.
Golden declined to engage, saying Greenlick is the public health expert, but said he thinks the proposed legislation is an overreaction.
Greenlick disagreed, and said the measles outbreak should prompt lawmakers to act where they have failed in the past.
“It turns out no, it’s not a theoretical discussion,” he said. “It’s a very practical discussion.”
Language in testimony often turned dramatic. State Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, said the bill would take medical decisions from parents and give them to Oregon Health Authority officials.
“Our children are not lab rats,” she said, garnering a loud applause.
Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, said the proposal was the “Russian roulette” of public policy.
Washington and Oregon are among 10 states to confirm cases of measles in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . An individual infected with measles may have exposed others to the disease when visiting Portland International Airport and Salem in late February.
While most states allow for religious exemptions to vaccines, 17 states including Oregon also permit parents to decline required immunizations for personal or philosophical reasons.
Around 7.5 percent of kindergartners in Oregon were unvaccinated in 2018, the highest rate in state history. Nearly all of those children used a non-medical exemption, according to Paul Cieslak with the Oregon Health Authority.
Cieslak added that although 96 percent of all Oregon schoolchildren are vaccinated against measles, there are individual schools throughout the state with far lower rates of vaccination. If the disease were to hit those areas, he said, it “will spread rapidly like it did in Clark County.”
But parents, in often emotional testimony, said the government shouldn’t force children to be immunized to receive an education. Some came to Oregon to escape strict vaccine requirements in California, which implemented a similar law in 2016.
They offered reasons not to vaccinate, including religion, personal freedoms, and fears over vaccines’ ingredients and side effects. Others pointed to payouts from the federal government for vaccine injury.
The federal Health Resources and Services Administration has paid out $4 billion to 6,358 people since 1988, according to the agency’s website.
Doctors and health professionals said vaccines have been proven safe and effective, and noted that serious vaccine side effects are rare.
“The measles outbreak should serve as an incredible warning to us all — one that is imperative to heed,” said Kristina Haley, an associate professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health & Science University. “Vaccines save lives.”
Parent Jessica Fichtel offered a personal reason for parents to vaccinate their children. Her 5-year-old son, Kai, has leukemia and is considered immunocompromised, meaning he can’t be vaccinated. She worries that his weak immune system makes him especially susceptible to catching a vaccine-preventable disease from the growing number of unvaccinated children.
“This outbreak was preventable,” she said. “Those who opt out of vaccinating their children are placing vulnerable members of our population, like my son, at great risk for exposure.”
It’s possible to be infected with measles even after receiving the vaccination, although it’s rare, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Sagdal and several other parents against compulsory vaccinations said they’re prepared to leave Oregon if the state goes through with the bill.
This story combined reporting from Sarah Zimmerman of The Associated Press and Aubrey Wieber of the Oregon Capital Bureau.