February 19, 2015
Tense testimony about a proposal to eliminate nonmedical exemptions from Oregon’s school immunization law continued for more than three hours Wednesday afternoon as Oregonians discussed conflicting scientific claims, parental autonomy and personal experience with infectious diseases as well as vaccine complications.
An amendment to Senate Bill 442, introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, would replace language in the current school immunization law that allows exemptions from vaccines based on religious and philosophical beliefs.
People packed the hearing room and overflowed into another where the Senate Committee On Health Care and Human Services meeting was broadcast on a screen. Both sides told heart-wrenching stories.
Oregon’s current school immunization law is among the more lax in the country, and the state’s nonmedical exemption rate is the highest in the country — 7 percent as of the 2013-14 school year. Public health officials have expressed concern that if current trends continue, the state could see a resurgence of infectious diseases due to a weakened herd immunity. Particularly at risk are those who are medically fragile, pregnant women and infants who are too young to be fully immunized.
The Legislature in 2013 tightened the law by requiring parents to demonstrate they’ve been educated on the risks of denying vaccines before claiming a nonmedical exemption. However, Steiner Hayward was unconvinced that it was improving immunization rates.
Committee chairwoman Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, attempted to limit individual testimony and asked attendees to maintain decorum, however, impassioned speakers regularly went over the three-minute cap, and the crowd occasionally clapped or reacted vocally to testimony.
Dr. Judith Guzman-Cottrill, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Oregon Health & Science University, told a story about a leukemia patient who had recovered enough to go back to school, but he was not yet well enough to receive live virus vaccines.
Within a year, the boy was exposed to chicken pox at school three times, she said.
“After each exposure, he was urgently seen at Doernbecher (Children’s Hospital in Portland) to receive an injection of varicella antibodies, in attempts to prevent him from becoming infected,” Guzman-Cottrill said. “Unfortunately, despite the third antibody injection, he developed chicken pox and varicella pneumonitis. He was admitted to our hospital and was very ill.”
The boy survived, she said.
Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, testified it was part of the government’s responsibility to protect the most vulnerable people in the state.
“We need to lead people to do the right thing even if it’s difficult and controversial,” he said.
However, for parents who believe vaccines injured their children or caused their autism, the would-be mandated vaccination was difficult to swallow.
Dr. Diane Gudmundsen, a Hillsboro chiropractor, said her son suffered a severe reaction — a high fever — after he received his second measles, mumps, rubella shot.
“His fever broke and I thought, all is well,” Gudmundsen said. “All was never well again.”
She said her son then began acting out and was kicked out of three preschools and expelled from his grade school. At age 18, he was diagnosed with autism, she said.
“I’m not anti-vaccine,” Gudmundsen said. “I do, however, feel that if there is going to be a law passed that forces parents to provide any and all vaccines, I feel that they should be safe beyond a shadow of the doubt.”
“I constantly will have to live with my doubt giving the MMR vaccine to my son because of the severe reaction he had and the behavior changes afterward.”
Many also challenged the constitutionality of the bill, and an information hearing on March 9 will address that question, Monnes Anderson said.
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