Vaccine skeptics protest bill requiring doctor's note to opt out
A proposal to make it more difficult for parents to avoid school-entry immunization requirements has raised the ire of opponents, who say the requirement is insulting and violates their parental rights.
Seattle Times health reporter
The bills: House Bill 1015 and Senate Bill 5005, now ESB 5005:
Vaccines required for school or day care in Washington state:
Centers for Disease Control vaccine recommendations:
Worried by outbreaks of contagious diseases such as measles and whooping cough, public-health officials are supporting a proposal to make it more difficult for parents to avoid school-entry immunization requirements.
The measure under consideration has drawn strong support in both houses of the Legislature and faced little opposition until recently, when vaccine-resisting parents mobilized to pack hearings and lobby lawmakers.
The proposal would require parents who seek exemption from current state law to submit proof that a health provider has informed them of the risks and benefits of immunization.
Currently, parents can sign a form themselves to claim religious, philosophical or personal reasons for refusing to immunize their children before enrolling them in school or day care.
Public-health officials say the bill is needed because immunization rates are falling, parents are receiving sketchy information from the Internet and the state has made it too convenient for them to skip immunization.
"Convenience is not a reason to risk our children's health, and countering misinformation requires a conversation with a trusted and informed health-care provider," Dr. Gary Goldbaum, Snohomish Health District health officer, told lawmakers. "This is a matter of protecting our most vulnerable citizens: our children."
But more than 100 protesters who showed up at committee hearings this month weren't buying that.
"This bill implies that I am reckless, irresponsible and uninformed, when in fact that is the complete opposite," bristled Sarah Rowe, a Bainbridge Island mother who attended a Senate committee hearing last week with her 5-year-old daughter, whose neurological disorder was caused by a vaccine, according to Rowe.
Michael Belkin, also from Bainbridge, told the committee that as a statistics-savvy financial analyst, he doesn't want to listen to "some doctor's propaganda."
Belkin, who writes and speaks against vaccines, said one of his daughters died at 5 months of age, 17 hours after receiving her first vaccine. "The truth of the matter is there are risks in vaccines."
Janine Parque, who traveled from Puyallup for a House committee hearing this month, didn't have a chance to speak but was ready to testify against the bill's "complete entanglement of church and state."
Her children aren't vaccinated because she believes in their "God-given immunity to fight off disease and infection," she said. "I researched this issue on my own, and I made a decision that the risks of vaccination outweigh the benefits."
Diseases are forgotten
That's the kind of statement that drives public-health officials a little crazy.
Parents should be more frightened of the disease than the immunization, said Dr. Maxine Hayes, state public-health officer.
"I grew up with polio around," she said. "I had people in my class who had polio. Polio was very scary."
Because immunization has been so successful, she said, some parents now are more scared of vaccines than the diseases, "because they don't see the diseases."
The parents at the hearings were a "skewed group" who believe their children's injuries were caused by vaccines, Hayes said. "We have one of the safest vaccine supplies in the world."
House Bill 1015 and its twin, SB 5005, drew little opposition at first, easily passing their respective houses. But opponents packed hearing rooms in recent weeks.
Rep. Barbara Bailey, an Oak Harbor Republican and the prime sponsor of the House bill, tried to head off opposition as she introduced it to the Senate committee last week.
"Nothing in this bill is intended to prevent parents exercising their parental rights," she said.
Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, committee chair and sponsor of the companion Senate bill, said: "We make it easy to get a signature that you've been informed." The bill's intent is that parents get "good information to make their decisions."
Public-health officials told lawmakers that the vast majority of exemptions aren't for religious, philosophical or personal convictions but are about convenience.
"Parents are busy, they're working," Hayes said. "I raised two kids by myself. I know. All you want is to get the kid in school."
It's so easy in this state to "sign on the line" and opt out that it's a disincentive to getting the vaccine, she said.
Washington has one of the highest exemption rates in the country, which increases the likelihood of outbreaks, health officials said. Those can be especially risky to chronically ill students or those whose immune-system problems preclude vaccination.
"It's tragic to me when an infant dies of whooping cough" — which has happened twice this year in Washington, Hayes said. "It's totally preventable."
"Fired" by your doctor?
The bill has been endorsed by the Washington State Medical Association and the Washington Academy of Family Physicians.
Legislators appeared concerned about one claim by opponents: that doctors asked to sign statements by vaccine-refusing parents would refuse or would "fire" their patients.
Ezra Eickmeyer, representing the National Vaccine Information Center, an anti-vaccine group, noted a 2001 survey in which 23 percent of pediatricians said they "always" or "sometimes" tell vaccine-refusing parents they no longer can be the child's doctor.
Dr. Steve Albrecht, president of the Washington Academy of Family Physicians, said doctors differ: "I know some docs who are very flexible and available and adaptable about altering the vaccine regimen, and others who will say 'I don't want to work with you.' "
In general, doctors support vaccines because they have studied the research, and they want "what's good for patients," Albrecht said.
He said parents such as Belkin who don't vaccinate their children are taking advantage of the broad immunity that results from most parents complying with the law.
Belkin "shouldn't make too strong a case or the herd immunity will go away."
Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249
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