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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington House panel starts debate on ending personal exemption for vaccines

A woman holds a sign opposing a proposed bill that would remove parents’ ability to claim a philosophical exemption to opt their school-age children out of the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine Friday as she stands near the Legislative Building. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – With conflicting testimony on whether the risk of measles is greater than the danger of the vaccine to prevent it, Washington legislators will have to wrestle with a difficult choice:

Protecting public health or respecting personal choice.

Current state law allows parents to refuse to vaccinate their children for personal reasons, an exemption separate from those for religious or medical reasons.

With the House Health Care and Wellness Committee considering a bill to remove that personal exemption in the face of a measles outbreak in Clark County, supporters of the exemption filled the room and overflow spaces to defend it.

Clark County went from one case of measles to 50 in a month, said Roy Magnusson, of the PeaceHealth System in Vancover, even though the medical community was “working night and day” to contain the disease. Allowing people to refuse vaccinations for themselves or their children puts others at risks and ties up resources that can’t be used for other health problems, he said.

Toni Bark, a vaccine critic and Illinois physician, said vaccines are not safe and effective for everyone.

“It’s not one-sided. It’s not black and white,” she said.

State Health Department Director John Wiesman and a panel of Washington physicians who gathered after the hearing argued that the number of people for whom vaccines aren’t safe – infants and people with health conditions or undergoing medical treatments that compromise their immune systems – are the ones who need to be protected from measles through greater vaccination rates in the general public.

As they consider whether to remove the personal exemption, committee members will have to reconcile two very different views.

Brian Hooker, who has a doctorate in bioengineering and said his son was injured by the measles vaccine as an infant, called it a flawed product that doesn’t provide lifetime immunity. There has been one reported death in the United States from measles, but 105 from the measles vaccine, he said.

But Rupin Thakkar, a physician who testified in favor of removing the personal exemption, said that in countries without vaccinations, about one person in 1,000 who contract measles dies and research has not shown any causation between the vaccine and death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in the 10 years before the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, almost every child contracted measles before age 15. The agency estimates that 3 to 4 million Americans were infected each year.

And of those cases that were reported, 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 suffered encephalitis from measles, according to the CDC.

Physician Kathy Lofy said that while the system to report possible problems with vaccines does show deaths and other medical problems among vaccine recipients, that system is self-reported. It doesn’t require a verified link between the medicine and the conditions.

The CDC reports no confirmed deaths related to the MMR vaccine for mumps, measles and rubella, and no convincing evidence that any vaccine causes autism, said Kim Papich, spokeswoman for the Spokane Regional Health District.

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, sponsor of the bill to remove the personal exemption for vaccines, said Washington would be following 33 other states in taking that action. He said he would support an amendment to tighten the religious exemption.

Opponents apparently want a perfect vaccine but that doesn’t exist, Harris said. “It’s not perfect. It’s science.”