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Washington measles outbreak draws crowd to hearing on vaccine law

Health officials urge passage despite strong opposition from parents who say they want to make their own choices.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Anti-vaccine activists packed a public hearing Friday to oppose a bill that would make it harder for families to opt out of vaccination requirements for measles, mumps and rubella amid the state’s worst measles outbreak in more than two decades.

An estimated 700 people, most of them opposed to stricter requirements, lined up before dawn in the cold, toting strollers and hand-lettered signs, to sit in the hearing, which was so crowded that staff opened up additional rooms to accommodate the crowd. Many gathered outside afterward for a rally.

Anti-vaccine activists, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent vaccine conspiracy theorist, claimed that health officials are covering up vaccine dangers. Some said their children had been injured or sickened by immunizations. One falsely said the majority of people diagnosed with measles have been vaccinated.

When the Washington state health secretary, John Wiesman, debunked those claims, some members of the audience murmured in disapproval.

“I want to remind you that the MMR vaccine is extremely safe and highly effective,” Wiesman told lawmakers. He said that “all reputable scientific studies have found no relation between measles and autism,” and outlined the potential harms of the highly contagious respiratory virus, which can be fatal in small children.

Wiesman urged lawmakers to pass the bill to eliminate personal or philosophical exemptions, noting the current outbreak, which has sickened at least 56 people in Washington and Oregon, is more alarming than the state’s three previous ones.

“This one is larger and infecting people faster than in recent history,” he said. “In states with tighter exemption laws, there is less suffering, fewer hospitalizations and more deaths averted.”

The bill, which would still allow exemptions for medical and religious reasons, is sponsored by Washington state Rep. Paul Harris, a Republican who represents Clark County, the epicenter of the outbreak just north of Portland, Ore. He said he plans to amend the bill to tighten religious exemptions, too, and then get the bill to the House floor by month’s end. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

“You cannot find a peanut in one of my schools [because of concerns about allergies], but unvaccinated kids are walking around in my schools because of a personal exemption?” Harris said. "I find it appalling.”

He said chances for passage are better this year than three years ago, when a similar effort failed. He cited overwhelming support for a high level of community immunity to protect children, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems who can’t get vaccinated. But groups on the extreme ends of the political spectrum are opposed.

This issue activates both my far right and my far left,” he said.

The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the nation’s most vocal and organized anti-vaccination activists. That movement has helped drive down child immunizations in Washington, as well as in neighboring Oregon and Idaho, to some of the lowest rates in the country, with as many as 10.5 percent of kindergartners statewide in Idaho unvaccinated for measles. That is almost double the median rate nationally. Most of those infected are unvaccinated children under age 10, health officials said.

The outbreak has prompted a huge increase in the number of people getting vaccinated in Clark County. The average number of immunizations has gone from about 200 a week on average, to more than 1,000 during the last two weeks of the month, Wiesman told reporters later.

"The challenge we face is that most people haven’t seen this, the effects of an outbreak,” he said. "If you travel the world, people will line up for this vaccine, because they have seen it.“

A new report Thursday by the World Health Organization warned of a worldwide surge in measles cases in 2018, with 15 times more measles cases in Europe last year than in 2016. For the first time, the WHO listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 global threats of 2019.

Washington is one of 17 states that allow personal or philosophic exemptions to vaccination requirements, meaning virtually anyone can opt out. But outbreaks across the country are prompting lawmakers in several states to weigh tightening immunization requirements. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown (D) told reporters Thursday the legislature will likely look at ways to strengthen legislation, but didn’t offer specifics.

Lawmakers in other states are monitoring what happens in Washington because they are also “facing an increase in vaccine hesitancy among concerned parents and an increase in advocacy by anti-vax groups,” said Michael Fraser, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

One activist who spoke Friday, Mary Holland, who teaches at New York University Law School and said her son has a vaccine-related injury, warned lawmakers that if the bill passes, many vaccine opponents will “move out of the state, or go underground, but they will not comply.”

That sentiment resonated with Nicole Wilson, 32, who is pregnant and said she has no intention of vaccinating her unborn child. “Me and my boyfriend were already thinking about it,” Wilson said about moving out of state. She said her 1-year-old daughter was vaccinated against her wishes.

“I’ll tell you something. They are not going to change our minds,” Wilson said.

Sun reported from Washington.

Read more:

‘It will take off like a wildfire’: the unique dangers of the Washington state measles outbreak

Why small groups of vaccine refusers can make large groups of people sick

Anti-vaccine activists spark a state’s worst measles outbreak in decades