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Amid measles outbreak, Ore. eyes vaccine requirements

March 2, 2019
In this photo taken Feb. 28, 2019, protest signs lay abandoned outside the state capitol in Salem, Ore. Hundreds of parents came to oppose a proposal to tighten vaccination requirements among schoolchildren. The move comes as a Washington community just over the Oregon border works to contain a measles outbreak that has sickened more than 65 people. (AP Photo/Sarah Zimmerman)
In this photo taken Feb. 28, 2019, protest signs lay abandoned outside the state capitol in Salem, Ore. Hundreds of parents came to oppose a proposal to tighten vaccination requirements among schoolchildren. The move comes as a Washington community just over the Oregon border works to contain a measles outbreak that has sickened more than 65 people. (AP Photo/Sarah Zimmerman)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A measles outbreak in southwest Washington has added urgency for Oregon lawmakers as they consider tightening the state’s school vaccination requirements, which are considered some of the most relaxed in the country.

More than 65 people, many of them unvaccinated children, have been sickened with measles in Clark County, Washington.

“It’s not a theoretical discussion anymore. It’s a very practical discussion,” said Rep. Mitch Greenlick, the Portland Democrat behind a proposal making it more difficult for families to opt out of vaccine requirements. “We’re talking about a real example of what happens if no one vaccinates their kids.”

Under the bill, children would have to receive vaccinations in order to attend school, unless they have a doctor’s note seeking an exemption for medical reasons. Parents would no longer be able to claim vaccine exemptions for religious, personal or philosophical reasons. Washington state lawmakers are considering a similar measure this year.

Only three states - California, Mississippi and West Virginia - prohibit nearly all exemptions.

Greenlick’s proposal met considerable pushback during a crowded hearing Thursday, which drew hundreds of parents to the Capitol to speak against the measure , which they say is discriminatory and a form of government overreach.

“The government’s authority ends at my skin,” said Breeauna Sagdal, a parent and advocate, outside the packed hearing room. “It’s my body, it’s my family and it’s my choice. And they can pass whatever law they want. I’m not following it.”

Washington and Oregon are among 10 states to confirm cases of measles in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . An individual infected with measles may have exposed others to the disease when visiting Portland International Airport and Salem, Oregon, in late February.

While most states allow for religious exemptions to vaccines, 17 states including Oregon also permit parents to decline required immunizations for personal or philosophical reasons.

Around 7.5 percent of kindergartners in Oregon were unvaccinated in 2018, the highest rate in state history. Nearly all of those children used a non-medical exemption, according to Paul Cieslak with the Oregon Health Authority.

Cieslak added that although 96 percent of all Oregon school children are vaccinated against measles, there are individual schools throughout the state with far lower rates of vaccination. If the disease were to hit those areas, he said, it “will spread rapidly like it did in Clark County.”

But parents, in often emotional testimony, said the government shouldn’t force children to be immunized to receive an education. Some came to Oregon to escape strict vaccine requirements in California, which implemented a similar law in 2016.

They offered reasons not to vaccinate, including religion, personal freedoms, and fears over vaccines’ ingredients and side effects.

Doctors and health professionals said vaccines have been proven safe and effective, and noted that serious vaccine side effects are rare.

“The measles outbreak should serve as an incredible warning to us all -- one that is imperative to heed,” said Kristina Haley, an associate professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health and Science University. “Vaccines save lives.”

Parent Jessica Fichtel offered a personal reason for parents to vaccinate their children. Her 5-year-old son, Kai, has leukemia and is considered immunocompromised, meaning he can’t be vaccinated. She worries that his weak immune system makes him especially susceptible to catching a vaccine-preventable disease from the growing number of unvaccinated children.

“This outbreak was preventable,” she said. “Those who opt out of vaccinating their children are placing vulnerable members of our population, like my son, at great risk for exposure.”

It’s possible to be infected with measles even after receiving the vaccination, although it’s rare, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Sagdal and several other parents against compulsory vaccinations said they’re prepared to leave Oregon if the state goes through with the bill.

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Follow Sarah Zimmerman at @sarahzimm95 .

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