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Parents, lawmakers divided on removing non-medical vaccine exemptions

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (left) and Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend) compare the stack of emails supporting SB 442 (left) and those opposing the vaccine bill.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (left) and Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend) compare the stack of emails supporting SB 442 (left) and those opposing the vaccine bill.

As vaccination rates decrease and cases of vaccine-preventable diseases increase, Oregon lawmakers are trying to make it more difficult for parents to opt their children out. But Senate Bill 442, which has been introduced this session and seeks to remove non-medical exemptions to Oregon law requiring school children to be vaccinated, is being met with organized opposition from both lawmakers and parents.

UPDATE: That opposition led the bill's sponsor, family physician and Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Beaverton), to withdraw the bill Wednesday, after we went to press. According to the Statesman Journal, she remains committed to improving vaccination rates in Oregon, and plans to propose a different approach that retains non-medical exemptions, but requires parents to receive education from the child's doctor before opting out.

On Monday, the Statesman Journal reports, more than 100 people turned up for a "No on Senate Bill 442" rally at the Oregon State Capitol. And Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend), who has been described as organizing the bill's opposition, says he's received substantially more emails opposed than in support.

"There continues to be strong opposition from parents, especially moms," Knopp, who supports vaccination generally but is opposed to the bill, told the Source. "Maybe 98 percent of email I get is opposed to eliminating parental rights and informed consent as it relates to childhood vaccines."

The bill even attracted the attention of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—a lawyer, environmental activist and, yes, one of those Kennedys—who flew out to Salem last week to hold a private screening of the anti-vaccine film Trace Amounts and talk to lawmakers.

Sponsored by family physician and Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Beaverton), SB 442 would remove existing allowances for religious or philosophical objections to vaccination. But concerns about a lack of votes in the Legislature has the bill stalled in the Senate Health Committee for now, says Knopp, who is a committee member.

If the bill makes its way into law, Oregon would join an exclusive club of states barring non-medical exemptions. Its two current members: Mississippi and West Virginia. Supporters of the bill argue that these two states are proof that limiting exemptions leads to less disease. Both states have lower rates of vaccine-preventable illness than Oregon.

Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend), and all the doctors currently serving in the legislature, supports the bill. Buehler tells the Source that there is cause for concern about infection rates here in Deschutes County. Over the last decade, he says, the percentage of non-medically exempt kindergarteners doubled, from 4.9 percent to 10 percent.

"Unfortunately, the health department has also documented a corresponding rise of vaccine-preventable diseases," he adds. "Pertussis [whooping cough], a highly contagious and potentially fatal respiratory disease, is one example: in 2001, there was only one reported case in Deschutes County; in 2014, there were 60 cases reported."

Not all parents oppose the bill. A Portland-based parenting blogger named Sara, who requested her last name not be used, says that Oregon's low vaccination rates are putting the state's residents at risking of losing "herd immunity," a term scientists use to describe the protective effect of a significant population of vaccinated (for measles, it's 94 percent).

"If you don't want to vaccinate your kids, that's fine," she writes on her blog at itsmomsense.com. "But you should not be allowed to send them to school with my kids because it's selfish and dangerous."

She started a petition to coalesce support for the bill a little over a week ago that has already garnered more than 1,400 signatures, including individuals from Central Oregon.

For those concerned about the potential public health ramifications, the positives outweigh any negatives. But for parents unconvinced of the "medical emergency," the debate comes down to concerns over the balance (or lack thereof) between individual liberty and public safety.

"It's easy for me to be opposed to that because I believe parents have a constitutional right and duty to be the determining factor in the health of their kids and what kind of healthcare they're going to have," Knopp tells the Source, "and as it relates to vaccines what kind of schedule they'll be on." He adds, "Most parents writing in are not anti-vaccine but want to be able to determine the schedule...I've been very clear that this is not a vaccine issue, it's a parental rights and an informed consent issue."

Local parent Erin Hansen agrees. She vaccinates her children, though on a different schedule than the one recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. She is strongly opposed to a bill that would eliminate non-medical exemptions. She says she is concerned not only about the principle, that is, parents being allowed to make decisions about their children's healthcare, but also about the potential repercussions for private schools.

Hansen says roughly 40 percent of students at the small, local private school her children attend are counted among the non-vaccinated—a category that includes not only those who have opted out entirely, but also those who have declined a handful of vaccines or are simply behind the established schedule.

"As a parent with children who are on a non-traditional vaccine schedule, this means if the bill is passed my children will not be able to attend school next year," Hansen explains. "For many private and charter schools this could mean an attrition rate of 20-40 percent."

Rep. Buehler says he recognizes this potential outcome, and is working on an amendment that would exclude private schools from the requirements.

"I am all for personal freedom until it starts hurting others," Buehler explains. "Not vaccinating your children puts others at risk, such as infants who are too young or those who cannot be vaccinated because their immune systems are compromised," he says. "Also, the bill still allows choices for parents: you can enroll your kids in an online school, home school, or find a doctor that will sign a medical exemption. If the amendment passes, one could also enroll in a private school that does not require immunization."

Lawmakers are also considering an amendment that would expand the list of healthcare providers qualified to approve medical exemption.

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