A vaccination debate enlivened by a measles outbreak in the Portland area drew hundreds to the state Capitol on Thursday for the first hearing of a bill that would eliminate some of Oregon’s existing vaccine exemptions.
Normally sedate hallways were packed with giggling kids, their rapt parents gathering around any TV broadcasting a hearing of the House Committee on Health Care. Two overflow rooms quickly filled with people — many wearing stickers opposing House Bill 3063 — after the hearing room hit capacity well ahead of the 3 p.m. start time.
At issue was a bipartisan bill that would eliminate parents’ ability to refuse to vaccinate their children for religious or philosophical reasons, and still send those children to public or private school. Exemptions for medical reasons would still be allowed.
HB 3063 was introduced Monday, but had been in the works for weeks as lawmakers reacted to a measles outbreak that has impacted dozens of people in Clark County, Washington.
“In past years when we’ve discussed vaccination policy, it’s been a theoretical discussion,” said state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, a chief sponsor of the bill and the first person to testify Thursday. “It turns out, it’s not a theoretical discussion anymore. It’s a very practical discussion.”
Plenty of people disagreed, despite science in the field overwhelmingly supporting the use of vaccines.
In hours of testimony, parents and health professionals professed deep misgivings about the safety of vaccines.
Some spoke of personal experiences or scenarios they’d seen patients go through. Others vowed to leave the state if the bill passed. Many took issue with the notion that Oregon could withhold education from unvaccinated kids.
“Vaccines cannot be seen as a one-size-fits-all type of medicine,” said Leslie Hamlett, a naturopathic doctor in Portland. “You’re taking away informed consent.”
Lawmakers, too, spoke out against the bill. State Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg, introduced an amendment that would retain religious vaccine exemptions in Oregon.
Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, railed against a proposal she said “would strip parents of the right to make medical decisions for their children and give those rights to unelected bureaucrats.”
Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Medford, said his constituents were worried about the swiftness of the bill, and asked if there were “less sweeping and authoritarian options.”
There was equally emotional testimony in favor of the bill, with medical professionals, Oregon Health Authority officials, nurses and lawmakers testifying in favor.
OHA’s Dr. Paul Cieslak laid out a litany of public health benefits that have arisen out of herd immunity, which sets in when a large percentage of a population are immunized.
“Herd immunity has allowed us to eliminate small pox from the world,” Cieslak said. “Diseases like diphtheria and tetanus have become a curiosity.”
Measles, several witnesses noted, is highly contagious. A population needs around 93 percent of its members immunized to achieve herd immunity.
Since the start of the year, Clark County, Washington, has confirmed more than 60 cases of measles, the vast majority of them in unvaccinated children. Four cases have been confirmed in Oregon.
As OPB has noted, vaccination rates in the Pacific Northwest are some of the lowest in the country. Around 7.5 percent of Oregon kindergartners have claimed a vaccine exemption, according to the Oregon Health Authority — the highest rate in the country.
The emotional nature of the debate was in full view from early on in Thursday’s hearing, with some witnesses tearing up during testimony, and one public official saying she felt nervous to even speak out in favor of vaccines.
“Despite my strong convictions on this issue … I was and still am nervous to testify here today,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, an emergency room doctor who supports the bill. “I know that other elected officials who have supported this policy have received hateful emails, phone calls and even death threats.”
Under Oregon law, parents can currently decline vaccinations for religious or philosophical reasons, once they view online educational materials or talk to a doctor.
Despite those factors, leading Democrats have said they hope HB 3063 crosses the finish line this year. A bill that would have curtailed vaccine exemptions died in 2015, amid strong opposition.
“We have to solve it and this might be the year we do it,” House Speaker Tina Kotek said Thursday. “I think there’s a lot of momentum in that direction.”