Amid Measles Outbreak, Washington State Poised to End Some Vaccine Exemptions

by | April 18, 2019 AT 4:25 PM

By David Gutman

Spurred by a measles outbreak that has sickened 74 kids in Washington this year and the biggest national resurgence of the disease in at least five years, the Washington state Senate late Wednesday voted to remove parents' ability to exempt their children from a vaccination for personal or philosophical reasons. But the stricter rules would apply only to one vaccine -- the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination.

Parents would continue to be able to have their children opt out of other required school vaccinations, citing personal or philosophical exemptions. Religious exemptions will still be allowed for all vaccinations, including MMR.

The House, with mostly Democratic support, passed the measure last month, but because it was amended by a Senate committee, the bill heads back across the rotunda for a final vote.

While almost every state allows exemptions from vaccinations for religious reasons, most states do not allow children to opt out for other reasons. Washington is one of just 17 states that allow exemptions from required immunizations for "personal, moral or other beliefs," according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. All states grant exemptions for medical reasons.

The Senate voted 25-22, largely on party lines, to pass the bill after about two hours of debate. Republican senators proposed 18 amendments to delay, weaken or alter the bill, all of which were either withdrawn or defeated.

Wednesday at 5 p.m. was the deadline for all House bills to pass the Senate. For a brief period, it looked like a Republican stalling tactic, just before 5, might have killed the bill. But Democratic Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, presiding over the Senate, read the bill's number on the floor at around 4:57, before immediately moving on to other legislation, allowing Democrats to bring back the bill later Wednesday night.

The measles outbreak in Washington has been concentrated in southwestern Clark County, which tallied 73 of the 74 reported cases, according to the state Department of Health. It also kept more than 800 kids at more than a dozen schools out of school for weeks. Any child without proof of immunization at a school with a diagnosed case of the highly contagious disease was kept out of school.

"My community is under threat," said Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, who represents the district at the center of the outbreak. "A vote against this bill is a vote against public health."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all children get two doses of measles vaccine, which is 97% effective.

Republicans repeatedly questioned the research that has found the vaccines safe and argued the decision should lie with parents.

"We keep hearing 'science is settled,' " said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who also represents the district hit by the outbreak and who said she changed her mind on the bill after doing her own research. "It's not settled."

Medical studies have confirmed that vaccines don't cause autism, yet the disorder remains a common reason cited by parents who reject vaccinations. The scientific journal Lancet years ago retracted the paper that claimed a link. Others object to the timing and combinations of the vaccines and to being forced to inoculate their children.

For many years, only two states -- West Virginia and Mississippi -- required vaccines for all children, with no personal or religious exemptions allowed. In 2015, California passed legislation becoming the third state to eliminate both personal and religious exemptions for vaccine requirements.

The vote in Washington comes as measles cases in the U.S. are on pace to set a record for the most instances in 25 years. The disease was considered eliminated in 2000.

Health officials reported Monday that 555 cases have been confirmed nationwide this year, up from 465 as of a week ago. The number of cases in Washington has held steady for several weeks.

While 20 states have reported cases, nearly two-thirds of all cases have been in New York. Most of the New York cases have been traced to unvaccinated people in Orthodox Jewish communities.

The 2019 tally is already the most since 2014, when 667 were reported. The most before that was 963 cases in 1994.

In New York City, the Board of Health voted Wednesday to extend last week's emergency declaration ordering mandatory measles vaccinations in four Brooklyn ZIP codes. The order will end when officials declare the emergency over. It applies to children ages 6 months and older with fines for noncompliance.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

(c)2019 The Seattle Times