In response to Washington state’s worst measles outbreak in more than two decades — 74 people have been infected so far — the state legislature moved to pass legislation to make it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids. The bill ultimately passed on Wednesday. But every Republican in the state Senate voted against it.
Amid a nationwide measles outbreak, Republicans in Washington and other states across the country are opposing efforts to do something about the public health crisis, citing civil liberties and espousing anti-vaccine views.
This year, 555 people have come down with measles, the second-highest number of reported cases in 25 years. This outbreak is largely viewed as a policy failure, as it’s become too easy for parents to not vaccinate their kids.
In order to protect everyone from measles, including infants and people who just can’t take the measles vaccine for medical reasons, a large percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated — a threshold known as “herd immunity.” A 5% vaccination opt-out rate could threaten herd immunity.
Washington is among 17 states where parents can opt out of vaccinating their children for personal or philosophical reasons, in addition to existing religious and medical exemptions. Republicans in some of these states — like Colorado, Arizona, Maine, and Oregon — have been pushing back against Democrats’ attempts to make it harder for parents to avoid vaccinating their children.
Republicans in Iowa, New Jersey, and New York are similarly fighting Democratic bills to close religious exemptions. In Mississippi and West Virginia, Republicans are pushing to expand exemptions.
In Washington, about 4.7% of parents or guardians for kindergartners statewide claimed an exemption to at least one vaccine in the last two years, according to The Washington Post. Nearly 9 out of 10 exemptions were for personal or philosophical reasons.
While debating the bill for hours ahead of the vote, many GOP lawmakers downplayed the seriousness of the measles outbreak in Washington.
“It’s not a health emergency, quite frankly. The spread of that illness has affected one community,” said state senator Shelly Short (R).
State Sen. Phil Fortunato (R) asked to amend the bill by permitting kids to take a single measles, mumps, or rubella vaccine, rather than being required to take the combined MMR vaccine. But a single-ingredient vaccine isn’t even available, and taking two shots of the MMR vaccine is 97% effective. Nonetheless, Fortunato and other Republicans rationalized the amendment, saying parents should be able to offer their kids a single vaccine in case of “reactions.”
“I have a personal stake in this. A person in our family had reactions to vaccinations when she was little — it’s my daughter,” said Short.
“It overwhelmed her body to have all those vaccinations at once. I’m not necessarily anti-vaccination, but I am anti taking away a parent’s right to choose what is best for their children and working with their physicians… It’s so ridiculous it has to be one way and one way only,” she added.
“What about the rights of the parents? Parents are responsible for their children. They have the right, the fundamental right, to make a determination as to the medical care of their children on a vaccination that has risks to it,” said state Sen. Mike Padden (R).
Republicans in other states are making similar arguments.
“Parents know their children a lot of times much better than the doctors,” Colorado state Rep. Marc Catlin (R) told the Denver Channel, when explaining why he’s skeptical of a bill to get rid of personal exemptions.
“The state must respect parental rights and can only step in when there’s overwhelming evidence of neglect or abuse,” said Maine state Rep. Jeff Hanley (R), of a bill to eliminate non-medical exemptions. “This truly is about freedom.”
Meanwhile, New York Democrats are trying to allow teens age 14 and over to get vaccinated without a parent or guardian’s permission.
“Young people are often more conscious about the misinformation on the internet and can in many cases disagree with parents who have bought into unfounded and dangerous anti-immunization diatribes and pseudoscience,” said the New York chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization that supports the bill. “These young people have a right to protect themselves.”
The anti-vaxxer movement has spread a lot of misinformation about the dangers of vaccines and has misled the public. Study after study has debunked the theory that there’s an association between getting the measles vaccination and developing autism.
In Congress, there’s mostly bipartisan appetite to do something about the measles outbreak. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), however, used the only Senate hearing addressing this year’s outbreak to speak out against mandatory vaccinations.
“I’m not here to say don’t vaccinate your kids… but I still don’t favor giving up on liberty for a false sense of security,” said Paul, after questioning the effectiveness of the flu vaccine.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), who was an emergency physician before entering politics, did use his time to push back against Paul, saying, “If you are such a believer in liberty that you do not wish to be vaccinated, there should be a consequence and that should be that you cannot infect other people.”
To the dismay of public health experts, President Donald Trump — who has previously linked autism to vaccines — hasn’t even mentioned the nationwide measles outbreak.