Senate Votes to Give Public More Information About Low Vaccination Rates
The Senate Democrats and one Republican voted Tuesday to require all Oregon schools to share information about the school’s vaccination rate for preventable contagious diseases like polio and measles, providing parents with essential information to protect vulnerable children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
“Parents who can’t immunize their children have no way of knowing the immunization rates at their child’s school. This is a government transparency bill as well as a parental rights bill,” said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, boomeranging charges made against her by opponents of compulsory childhood vaccinations that she wants to take their rights away by protecting children against preventable diseases through vaccines.
SB 895 will help parents with children who do have legitimate, medical reasons from opting out of vaccinations to pick a school where herd immunity rates are high enough to protect their child from unvaccinated children who could easily spread measles, diphtheria, pertussis, even polio, if an outbreak did occur.
The Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education already have the data in their public records for immunization rates at each school, but it is not readily available for average citizens to view without a public records request. SB 895 will direct the agencies to make this information available to school districts and local public health departments, which will provide the information on request, on websites and on existing school report cards sent to parents.
SB 895 also strengthens a law passed in 2013 requiring informed consent for parents who wish to opt their children out of vaccinations without a medical reason. The Oregon Department of Justice narrowly interpreted that law to apply only to kindergarteners, but SB 895 makes clear it applies to all students, and that the previous blanket exemption from vaccinations will no longer be valid.
Steiner Hayward said the 2013 law had been effective in getting more children immunized -- although opt-out rates were still alarmingly high. Kindergarten exemption rates decreased from 7.7 percent to 6 percent among children entering kindergarten since the law took effect. The herd immunity for measles is about 95 percent.
Based on complaints from Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, that some diseases like Hepatitis B are less of concern than others like polio, Steiner Hayward amended SB 895 to require a breakout of information about individual diseases, but Knopp still opposed the measure, citing the improved statistics.
“There’s no reason to act now,” he said. “There is no emergency.”
Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, said that making people more aware of low vaccination rates at individual schools might put undue peer pressure on some children, who may feel like victims if they were made to feel they are putting their classmates at risk of deadly diseases.
Sen. Chuck Thomsen, a conservative Hood River Republican, broke with his party over concerns that his newborn grandchild might become exposed to deadly contagious diseases from children whose parents refuse to vaccinate. The information will break down immunization rates for each disease that children can be inoculated against, since some children receive some vaccines but not others, even as the vast majority follow the full recommended schedule.
Thomsen, along with Steiner Hayward, had supported eliminating all non-medical exemptions , but Steiner Hayward removed the bill after receiving threats from anti-vaccine activists and pressure from that community caused some unnamed Democrats to cave in their support for SB 442.
SB 442 was nearly identical to legislation in California that Gov. Jerry Brown also signed on Tuesday, banning non-medical exemptions from vaccines for kindergarteners. Although California also has a pronounced anti-vaccine counter culture, political pressure swung the opposite way in the Golden State after it was statistically shown that unvaccinated children drove a measles epidemic at Disneyland this past winter.
“The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases,” Brown said in a statement. “While it is true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.”
Despite the growing antipathy towards vaccines in certain circles, they remain a rousing public health success, responsible for the elimination of smallpox from the world. In April, German measles, also known as rubella, followed polio into extinction in the Western Hemisphere. Fifty years ago, a German measles outbreak in the United States killed 11,000 fetuses and resulted in 20,000 babies born with birth defects.