Partisan Politics Throw Tougher Vaccine Law Into Question
This article has been edited to correct an earlier version.
May 22, 2013 — A senator’s automobile accident and a Republican blockade have put at risk a bill that would limit childhood vaccination exemptions.
Oregon has the lowest rate of vaccination among kindergarteners in the nation for the second straight year, with 6.4 percent of children receiving non-medical exemptions — an all-time high.
Public health advocates including the Oregon Pediatric Society say Oregon’s children are at risk of a major outbreak of infectious disease as a result of the state’s wide-open exemption law.
Current Oregon law allows parents to skip vaccinations for their public-school children by simply stating that vaccines are against their religion. Senate Bill 132 moves to tighten that exemption to require parents to give informed consent.
Parents would still be able to choose not to vaccinate their children for any reason, but only after watching a state-sponsored informational video on vaccination or receiving a note from a healthcare professional.
Anne Stone, the executive director of the Oregon Pediatric Society, said she thought she had Republican supporters for the tougher vaccine exemption law until Sen. Tim Knopp, a Bend Republican, decided to make a stand against the proposal.
With the support of Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, Knopp has sponsored a minority proposal that would keep current law intact, allowing parents to skip the vaccine requirements for any reason. The Republican caucus has lined up to support Knopp and his amendment.
Republicans have been able to block SB 132 and others because the Democrats have 16 out of 30 Senate seats — the slimmest possible majority. One of their members, Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, suffered a broken pelvis in a car accident on April 22 and returned to the Senate only this Monday.
A bill takes 16 votes to pass, and without Johnson’s critical 16th vote, the Republicans have been able to effectively filibuster any controversial legislation until she returns. She was absent on Wednesday, delaying a vote on SB 132 for a fourth straight week.
Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum of Portland has asked that the vote be rescheduled for next Tuesday, but the bill has now been delayed so long that it missed the deadline to be heard by the House Health Committee and will have to be referred to the House Rules Committee to have any hope of becoming law. The Health Committee has stopped taking new bills.
“We don’t feel this is a partisan issue,” Stone said. “This is about the health and well-being of Oregon’s children.”
The Republicans don’t have the votes for their proposal, either, but unless the Democrats can get 16 votes, SB 132 will die.
Dangerously low rates of immunization have led to epidemics of whooping cough in Washington and California as well as Ashland, Oregon, that had not been seen since the 1940s.
Upwards of 95 percent of children need to be immunized to create “herd immunity” for measles and whooping cough, and some Oregon schools have immunization rates as low as 70 percent. Stone said pediatrician Dr. Jay Rosenbloom often notes that measles are so contagious that if someone enters an elevator with an infected person and is not immunized, he or she will contract the disease.
Although usually not fatal, measles and whooping cough — also known as pertussis — can kill their victims, particularly in vulnerable populations such as newborns.
Under current law, it’s actually much easier to skip vaccinations than have a child properly immunized against disease. While vaccines cost money and require detailed records, parents can exempt their children by simply stating that vaccines are against their religion.
It’s that religious language that has become a sticking point for Knopp.
“You’re forcing some religious minority to go to a doctor they don’t believe for information they are not going to use,” Knopp told The Lund Report. “I don’t think we should infringe upon constitutional rights just because some of the medical community is concerned about vaccination rates.”
Knopp said the Oregon Pediatric Society should do a better job of educating parents about the dangers of infectious disease if it wants to increase vaccination rates. “I find it odd that it’s easier to infringe upon basic rights than do the hard work of advocating for something they believe in,” he said.
The Church of Christ, Scientist teaches that all things can be healed through prayer rather than through medicine, and many Christian Scientists strongly oppose vaccinations. Oregon also has one of the lowest rates of traditional religious affiliation in the United States, and the loosely written law encompasses other unorthodox personal convictions.
Washington, which had the nation’s lowest vaccination rate until surpassed by Oregon, saw the non-medical exemption for vaccines drop by 25 percent after it approved a similar law in 2011.
Image for this story by United States Agency for International Development (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons.
Christopher David Gray can be reached at [email protected].