Washington House debates ending measles vaccine exemptions

Hundreds showed up for the first public hearing on the bill last Friday

CLARK COUNTY — “Vaccines: The more you know, the more you NO!”

That was the sentiment on one sign as hundreds of people gathered outside the capitol building in Olympia last Friday morning to protest a bill aimed at making it harder for children to attend school in Washington state without the measles vaccine.

House Bill 1638 was proposed by 17th District Representative Paul Harris (R-Vancouver), who said he didn’t “drop this bill without giving it some thought,” and after hearing from hundreds of people in Clark County following a measles outbreak that has now sickened at least 53 people.

Measles vaccine injection. Stock photo.
Measles vaccine injection. Stock photo.

“They are concerned about our community, its immunity, and the community’s safety,” said Harris at the beginning of a public hearing on the bill in the House Health Committee. “We are concerned about the freedom of choice for all children. For children who are immunocompromised, who really can’t be immunized, who are locked up in their homes right now. Lots of them. We have people who are concerned that they can’t come out into public who have very small children.”

House Bill 1638 would eliminate the personal and philosophical exemption for the measles vaccine, meaning children who haven’t been vaccinated could no longer attend school without proof that they are medically unable to get the vaccine.

The bill is co-sponsored by Representative Monica Stonier (D-Vancouver) of the 49th District, who said she had heard similar outcry from her constituents after the recent outbreak.

“We have experienced many years without knowing and experiencing what measles can do,” said Stonier, “and now we’re starting to see the negative impacts of too many people who are not immunized.”

The state Health Department says 4 percent of secondary school students have a non-medical vaccine exemption. 3.7 percent of those are personal exemptions, with the remainder being religious. In Clark County, the number of non-medical vaccine exemptions jumps to 6.7 percent.

The committee heard from a group of people on both sides of the vaccine debate, including Dr. John Wiesman, Washington State’s Secretary of Health.

“This bill, simply put, is about safe schools and protecting vulnerable children,” said Dr. Wiesman, adding that after the booster shot the vaccine is 97 percent effective at preventing the disease.

Wiesman says the near-eradication of measles has many people thinking it is no longer a serious disease, but that there can still be serious health consequences.

“1 in 20 with measles gets pneumonia,” he told the committee. “1 in 1,000 will develop a serious brain injury called encephalitis, and 2 of every 1,000 children with measles will die from it.”

But Doctor Toni Bark, a pediatric practitioner from Illinois who has been active in speaking out against mandatory vaccinations, says people aren’t being told the full story when it comes to vaccine dangers.

“While there’s only been two deaths from measles in this country since 2003,” she told the committee, “there’s been at least four-hundred and some odd children who’ve died from the vaccine.”

Doctor Brian Hooker, a researcher focused on vaccine-related injuries since his son had a severe reaction to a vaccine, had a slightly different number, saying there had been 105 deaths related to the measles vaccine in the past decade, compared to one death from actual measles.

It should be noted that a 2015 study by the National Institutes of Health found no sure link between vaccines and infant mortality rates. Their study concluded that most post-vaccine deaths were due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and that those types of infant deaths declined sharply after a campaign in the mid-90’s to make sure babies were sleeping on their backs.

Still, Dr. Hooker says better nutrition and natural immunity had already greatly reduced the impact of measles in the U.S. prior to the introduction of the vaccine.

“The death rate due to measles in Washington state in the four years prior to the introduction to the measles vaccine, was just 1.4 in 10,000 cases,” says Hooker, noting that in California, where he now lives, a mandatory vaccination bill passed in 2016 has done little to improve overall vaccine rates. Instead, he says many parents removed their children from public schools, or moved out of the state altogether.

Mary Holland of the New York University School of Law agreed, saying the hundreds who drove to Olympia early on a Friday morning were not so-called “free riders.”

“You will not get those people to vaccinate their children,” she said. “Those people will move out of the state, or they will simply go underground, but they will not comply.”

Robert Kennedy, Jr., a well-known environmentalist and anti-vaccine advocate, and also nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy, went a step further.

“Having signed the Nuremberg agreement, the Geneva Convention and the Oslo agreement, do we want to be a country that forces children or parents to engage in risky medical interventions without informed consent?” Kennedy asked.

Kennedy agreed with several other speakers, who pointed out that the 1986 Vaccine Act shelters vaccine makers from being sued, while the number of total vaccines being given to children has grown significantly in that same time period.

“I got three vaccines as a kid,” he said. “I have seven children, they got 72 vaccines. Mandatory. And we saw, beginning that year, an explosion of chronic illnesses. ADD, ADHD, speech delay, language delay, autism, food allergies, autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Guillain-Barre syndrome.”

But supporters of the bill say studies have shown no link between those diseases and vaccines, and they dispute Kennedy’s claim that the MMR vaccine has not been rigorously tested for potential risks.

For her part, Dr. Bark says she believes new research into what is known as epigenetics should be allowed to progress before mandatory vaccine bills are passed. “This cannot be a one size fits all. Not everyone has the same risk factors,” she says.

Bark says we now know about things like single nucleotide polymorphic variants, which make it difficult to tailor a single drug to work for every human.

“These interface with things like drugs and vaccines very differently for different people. And this is not a one-in-a-million type of issue,” says Bark, adding that it’s now estimated that between 10 and 15 percent of people may be susceptible to adverse vaccine reactions, or find that vaccines are ineffective for them.

“And these are a susceptible minority who are being left out in the rain without an umbrella,” says Bark. “If you eliminate these exemptions, you are basically making a large minority of people susceptible to very serious risks, including death.”

Clark County measles update

Clark County Public Health today said they confirmed one new case of measles in a child between the ages of 1 and 10. However, the total number of confirmed cases remains at 53 with two suspected cases waiting for test results. One case that tests had shown as positive for measles earlier turned out to be a benign rash following a measles vaccine. Public Health says further tests on that patient determined they did not, in fact, have measles. Following that discovery, three potential exposure sites have been taken off of the list. They are as follows:
St. Paul Christian Daycare (Jan. 23), The Vancouver Clinic Salmon Creek (Jan. 23), Vancouver Women, Infant and Children office (Jan. 23) and Tower Mall public areas (Jan. 23).

For a complete list of exposure sites, visit the Public Health measles investigation webpage.

The Clark County Council recently approved a resolution supporting HB 1638. District 3 Councilor John Blom was there to speak in support of the bill.

“Schools, businesses, daycares, churches and public spaces have all been listed as exposure sites,” Blom told the commission. “On a personal note, my daughter’s school was one of the first exposure sites identified. So not only is this hitting my community, this hits very close to home.”

Blom says Clark County Public Health has had to pull resources from other programs to combat the outbreak, especially because it hit right at the peak of flu season.

Still, Kennedy says it’s his belief that lawmakers should instead be demanding more research to answer questions about the rising number of children dealing with chronic health issues over the past few decades.

“Prior to 1986 there was 12 percent of kids in this country, according to HHS, with chronic disease,” says Kennedy, “today it’s 54 percent.”

But health providers maintain that extensive research and testing of vaccines has already been done, and that anti-vaccine proponents are basing their beliefs on faulty research and pseudo-science. As for what could be causing the rise in childhood health problems, many point to pesticide use in farming, genetically modified foods, and a more sedentary lifestyle for many modern children.

HB 1638 is set for another committee hearing later this week. There is also a senate bill being considered that would more broadly eliminate personal and philosophical exemptions for all childhood vaccines. Washington Governor Jay Inslee and the Washington State Medical Association have said they would support whichever bill passes, if either of them do. A similar bill failed to get to a full House vote in 2015 after a large measles outbreak at Disneyland in California.

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