Washington parents will no longer be able to claim a personal or philosophical exemption to avoid giving their children the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill to limit such exemptions Friday morning during a visit to Vancouver, the epicenter of a measles outbreak that sickened 71 people earlier this year.

“In Washington state we believe in our doctors. We believe in our nurses. We believe in our educators. We believe in science and we love our children,” Inslee said alongside Clark County lawmakers and public officials before signing the bill into law. “And that is why in Washington state, we are against measles.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signs a bill into law that will eliminate the personal or philosophical exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in Vancouver, Wash., Friday, May 10, 2019.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signs a bill into law that will eliminate the personal or philosophical exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in Vancouver, Wash., Friday, May 10, 2019.

Molly Solomon/OPB

The outbreak in southwest Washington forced schools to exclude hundreds of unvaccinated students, cost public health authorities nearly $1 million and prompted Inslee to declare a public health emergency.

The health scare also pushed state legislators to tighten vaccine laws this session. More than 90% of the 71 cases in Washington were people who had not been vaccinated. The local outbreak was officially declared over on April 29, after no new cases were seen after a six-week period.

Inslee said removing the personal, philosophical exemption is an important first step toward public health to protect the state’s “most vulnerable citizens.” But he urged continued work at local and national levels to dispel fears of vaccines that have circulated on the internet.

“We should be listening to science and medicine, not social media,” Inslee said.

State Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, sponsored the bill as a simple message to parents: If you want your kids to go to a public school, they must be vaccinated.

“I just think it’s the right thing to do,” Harris said. “Hopefully this will get our rates up so we have community immunity.”

At the time of the recent measles outbreak, Clark County had a vaccination rate of 78%, with some schools in the area reporting rates under 40%. Health officials say communities need to have vaccination rates between 90 and 95% to prevent an outbreak.

“I hope this new law will bring to the forefront again the importance of being vaccinated,” Harris said.

As the bill made its way through the Legislature, it drew the attention of anti-vaccine opponents, who flooded public hearings with concerns that vaccines would harm their children. A couple dozen people stood outside Vancouver City Hall on Friday, holding signs to protest the bill signing.

The new law only applies to the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. Parents can continue to opt their kids out of other required school vaccinations with a personal or philosophical exemption. Religious and medical exemptions are also still allowed for all vaccinations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, measles have sickened at least 764 people in the U.S. this year — an all-time high in cases reported since measles was declared eliminated in 2000.

More than 10 other states are considering tightening their vaccination laws this year, including Oregon, which is currently debating a bill to do away with non-medical exemptions entirely.

Clark County public health director Alan Melnick is hopeful Washington can continue to move forward on enforcing stricter laws for child school-required vaccinations and improving public awareness of the issue. 

“This is just a first step,” Melnick said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”