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Proposed state bill prohibiting philosophical exemptions for vaccines brings Douglas County opposition

April 1, 2019

A bill proposed in the Oregon State Legislature would prevent parents from refusing required immunizations on behalf of their children for philosophical reasons.

The bill is a response to a recent series of measles outbreaks in the Pacific Northwest and other small communities in the U.S.

Proponents say the bill is necessary to reduce the risk of people — particularly those with compromised immune systems who cannot get vaccinations — from contracting preventable diseases. Opponents say the bill is an infringement on their right to choose what medical treatments their children receive.

House Bill 3063 prohibits parents from declining required immunizations unless it poses a risk to their child or others close to them because of a serious medical diagnosis. Children who don’t have required immunizations and who are not exempt from them would be prohibited from attending school or any school-related activities.

“The vaccines that will be required under this bill are all well established and have decades of safety experience — over 50 years for the measles vaccine,” said Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer, the Douglas County Public Health officer, who testified on behalf of the Oregon Medical Association at a recent hearing before the House Committee on Health Care.

He said in more than 39 years as a pediatrician and in the 30 years practicing in Roseburg, he has “given over 100,000 immunizations with no long-term ill effects, but these immunizations have saved countless lives, hospitalizations and much human suffering.”

HB 3063 addresses the concern in the medical community that kids who are not immunized pose a serious risk to people who don’t have the option to get vaccinated because their immune systems are compromised, Dannenhoffer said.

“If we have high numbers of unimmunized kids, measles is always going to be around and it’s going to be a tremendous concern for kids with cancer or for kids with transplants,” he said. “So right now I have a bunch of kids in my practice who have cancer and have heart transplants, and they’re absolute sitting ducks if measles were to come to this community.”

Diseases such as measles are highly contagious, Dannenhoffer said. “If you have measles and go to school, you will infect almost everybody who is not immunized,” he said.

But opponents of the bill think the concern in the medical community doesn’t outweigh the right of people to choose what medical treatments their kids receive.

Rep. Gary Leif, R-Roseburg, said he opposes the bill because it takes away people’s right to choose.

“HB 3063 is an example of government overreaching and I will voting against the bill,” Leif said in an email.

Leif said the government has a responsibility “to ensure peace, security, and domestic tranquility.” He fell short of saying the government is obligated to protect vulnerable people from others’ decisions that can cause serious illness.

“Our constitution is clear that those responsibilities are balanced against individual freedoms and liberties,” Leif said. “In this country, parents are responsible for the decisions made on behalf their children.”

State senators Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, and Floyd Prozanski, D-South Lane and North Douglas counties, were not available to comment on the bill.

Leif said the bill is not about the efficacy of vaccines. “It is a question of parental rights,” he said.

But testimony submitted at the public hearing show many parents who oppose the bill doubt the consensus of the medical community that vaccines are safe and necessary to prevent outbreaks of certain diseases.

Erin Saylor, a Roseburg resident, said she opposes the bill because it’s a “violation of our medical and religious freedom.”

“Keeping immune systems strong and intact with healthy diet, exercise, vitamins and using good hand washing practices will do more to keep (vulnerable people and infants) healthy and safe far more than any vaccine would,” Saylor said in an email.

She said if the bill passes, she would be forced to take her kids out of school and keep them from important school-related events. Kids who are not immunized could attend online school, according to the bill.

“We homeschooled in the past and that would not be an issue for our family,” Saylor said. “Homeschooling would be the only option the way this bill is written. This bill denies children their right to an education and social activities that every child, regardless of their health status should be able to enjoy in the U.S.”

She said parents should not be required to vaccinate their kids if there is a risk of an unwanted reaction.

There are three types of adverse reactions that can occur following vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mild reactions are the most common and can cause redness near the place of injection. Moderate reactions are less frequent and can cause a fever. Severe reactions can cause anaphylaxis, but occur rarely — one in every 1 million doses.

David Nardone, a retired primary care physician and professor emeritus at Oregon Health Sciences University, said in his testimony before legislators that the public good should outweigh personal choice in the case of the bill.

“I believe it is disingenuous for parents to decide not to vaccinate their child by banking on the immunity of the herd to protect their own unvaccinated child,” Nardone said. “It takes all parents to collaborate to protect our children.”

At this time, people have the ability to not contract diseases such as measles despite not receiving vaccinations because a sufficiently high percentage of the public has received the vaccinations and suppress the disease’s prevalence — an effect called “herd immunity.”

But if large numbers of people were not immunized, the prevalence of the diseases at issue would dramatically increase, Dannenhoffer said.

Dannenhoffer said vaccination rates in Douglas County match those of the state. He said philosophical exemptions are lower in Douglas County than the state average. Ninety-four percent of school-aged kids in the county were fully vaccinated as of March 2018, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

“Typically the philosophical reason is based on incorrect data,” Dannenhoffer said. “There’s terribly misinformative data on the internet. And this terribly misinformative data suggests that vaccinates are not safe or not effective. And that’s just not true.”