Washington State Senate Approves Bills Limiting Vaccine Exemptions

April 18, 2019 Updated: April 18, 2019

The Washington state Senate has passed a bill blocking exemptions from the combined measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) on grounds of personal or philosophical reasons.

Lawmakers adopted the new legislation on Wednesday, April 17, according to the Seattle Times.

The law prevents parents from exempting their children on personal or philosophical grounds only with respect to the MMR vaccine. Parents in Washington state will still be able to opt out of other school-mandated vaccines on personal or philosophical grounds.

Exemptions to the MMR vaccine on religious or medical grounds remain unaffected.

Washington is one of only 17 states that permit vaccine exemptions for “personal, moral or other beliefs,” according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

Exemptions for medical reasons are permitted in all states.

The bill was introduced amid a Washington state measles outbreak in which 74 people became sick.

The outbreak led Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency.

Vote Breakdown

The bill passed 25-22, with Senators voting largely along party lines, the Seattle Times reported.

“My community is under threat,” said Democrat Sen. Annette Cleveland, according to the Times. “A vote against this bill is a vote against public health.”

“Our responsibility is to take swift action to prevent the potential for needless suffering,” she said, according to KING5.

Republican representatives questioned the research into vaccine safety and argued that parents should have the right to decide if their children get vaccinated.

“We keep hearing ‘science is settled,’” said Republican Sen. Ann Rivers, The Times reported. “It’s not settled.”

Republican Sen. Steve O’Ban said the passage of the bill is an act of government overreach.

“We are going to mandate and require that parents who have exercised a choice not to have their children undergo an invasive procedure must now do so,” he said, KING5 reported.

More than a dozen amendments to the bill were rejected, including one that would have removed immunization requirements for students attending private schools.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a news release that 555 individual cases of measles were confirmed between January 1 and April 11 of this year. The CDC added that this is the largest number of cases reported in the United States since the year 2000, when measles was essentially eradicated.

Four percent of Washington secondary school students have non-medical vaccine exemptions, the state Department of Health said, according to The Associated Press. Of those, 3.7 percent of the exemptions are personal, and the rest are religious.

Vaccination Policy

For decades, the U.S. government has made compulsory childhood vaccination one of the cornerstones of its public health policy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all children get two doses of measles vaccine, which the CDC says is “about 97% effective at preventing measles; one dose is about 93% effective.”

“Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States,” the CDC writes. “Of these, approximately 500,000 cases were reported each year to CDC; of these, 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 developed encephalitis (brain swelling) from measles. Since then, widespread use of measles vaccine has led to a greater than 99% reduction in measles cases compared with the pre-vaccine era.”

Countries outside the United States have vaccination policies that range from completely voluntary to “aggressive,” according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

“Some countries focus on educating their populace about the benefits of vaccination while leaving the choice to individuals, others offer financial incentives or have made vaccinations mandatory to ensure high coverage rates,” the CMAJ notes in the abstract of the study headlined “Mandatory vaccinations: The international landscape.”

Advocacy group Children’s Health Defense notes: “Regardless of the policy, no other country requires as many childhood vaccines as the U.S., but the legal edifice shoring up the compulsory childhood vaccine program is surprisingly flimsy.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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