A bill moving through the Legislature to limit the exemptions for childhood immunizations could get modified, allowing some personal physicians to help families get the medical exemptions they seek.
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward of Beaverton announced the proposal Saturday, March 23, at a town hall event in Portland. She said her proposal would let medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy and, possibly, nurse practitioners write a note to a school, allowing students to attend without their vaccinations.
Naturopaths would be excluded from the new rules.
Steiner Hayward — who also is a family physician — wants to add an amendment onto House Bill 3063, a bipartisan bill that would eliminate parents' ability to refuse to vaccinate their children for religious or philosophical reasons, and still send their children to public or private school.
Currently, all students must be vaccinated to attend public or private schools, unless the child has a medical exemption — such as a previous severe allergic reaction — or if the parents have a philosophical or religious reason to avoid the vaccinations.
Many parents do, and the Northwest has large clusters of unvaccinated children, which can lead to outbreaks of curable diseases such as measles. A recent measles outbreak in Washington and Oregon resulted in 73 children infected so far.
HB 3063 seeks to end those religious and philosophical opt-outs.
While the medical community has been strongly supportive of immunization for decades — pointing to the many childhood illnesses eradicated or made rare since the post-World War II era — a persistent group of parents, often called "antivaxxers," has argued that the vaccinations are unsafe and could cause autism.
Several studies worldwide have shown no link between vaccinations and autism.
The antivaccination crowd has protested at the state Capitol and attended town halls, including two held Saturday with Steiner Hayward and Rep. Mitch Greenlick.
Greenlick, D-Portland, is a chief co-sponsor of HB 3063, as are Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, and Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River.
"I've spoken to all three co-sponsors," Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, said Saturday. She said she also has spoken to the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Medical Board.
"This seems like the best way to address concerns (about immunization)," she said.
The bill has made it to Ways and Means, the budget-writing body of the Legislature. Steiner Hayward is one of three co-chairs of Ways and Means, giving her the latitude to get an amendment on the bill at this late stage.
Exemptions are allowed now, and here's how it works: A temporary or permanent medical exemption can be obtained by submitting a document signed by a physician or authorized representative of the local health department, stating that a child should be exempted from receiving specified immunizations based on a specific medical reason. The exemption must be approved by the local county health department.
Under Steiner Hayward's proposal, a letter from the doctor could go directly to the school, allowing the medical exemption.
The letters would be kept by the Oregon Health Authority. If one or more doctors appears to be issuing an unreasonably high number of such exemption letters, the issue would be handed over to the Oregon Medical Board, which can censure physicians.
Steiner Hayward said California has such a doctor-written opt-out for medical exemptions. And one physician in San Diego was responsible for writing one-third of all exemptions throughout the state, "for $180, cash on the barrelhead," she said.
Word of the amendment caught Greenlick off guard. "I'm about to blindside you with something," she told Greenlick at the town hall on Saturday — speaking into a microphone.
"I think I know what this is. Go ahead," he said. At which point, Steiner Hayward told the crowd about her proposed amendment.
Greenlick later said it was the first time they'd spoken about her proposal.
Quinn Burket, chief of staff for Rep. Helt, said she is aware of the amendment an is "generally supportive of it."
"She wants to address parents' concerns while maintaining the integrity of the system," Burkett said.
Sen. Thomsen was not available for comment.
"I probably had 20 conversations about this bill on Thursday and Friday," Steiner Hayward said later.
If she thought her amendment would appease the antivaxxers, it appeared Saturday to fail that test. Those opposed to vaccines still expressed unhappiness, saying they felt "Big Pharma" was pushing unsafe vaccines for profit.
"The vast majority of vaccines don't make a profit for the pharmaceutical companies," the senator told the small crowd, since the vaccines have existed for decades.
Greenlick agreed. "These are lifesaving products. Prior to the development of vaccines, people died. They died in wholesale numbers," said Greenlick, a retired medical researcher at Oregon Health & Science University.
Science backs vaccines
The idea that vaccines cause autism became popular when a physician, Andrew Wakefield, published such a report. In 2010, a British medical panel found that Wakefield had failed to disclose financial interests in making such claims and acted with "callous disregard" in his research.
Earlier this month, researchers at Copenhagen's Statens Serum Institut examined data for more than half a million Danish children born from 1999 to 2010. They found no link between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is 97 percent effective.
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