Measles Outbreak in the Pacific Northwest Sparks Vaccination Controversy

Although 2019 is only three months in, there have been 206 cases of measles in the United States this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those cases, 74 were attributed to the outbreak in Washington and Oregon.

The Pacific Northwest region is known for being heavily anti-vaccination, as Washington, Oregon, and Idaho allow both religious exemptions and personal belief exemptions from vaccinations. Personal belief exemptions include philosophical, moral or other inherent beliefs.

Because Washington and Oregon was host to the most recent outbreak, pro-vaccination states are spearheading a movement toward removing personal exemptions for vaccines. California is included in this group. After a 2015 measles outbreak at Disneyland and California Adventure in Anaheim, Calif. infected 147 people, California Senator Dr. Richard Pan headlined legislation to rid of any vaccine exemption not solely reliant upon medical reasoning.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, 17 states and Washington, D.C. allow for parents to object to immunizations for their children based upon personal belief exemptions. Forty-seven states grant religious exemptions and all states allow medical exemptions. California, Mississippi and West Virginia are the only states that prohibit every exemption, other than those strictly medically-associated.

Unlike many battles currently occurring between states over potential federal involvement in state laws, the vaccine policy debate is not considered a bipartisan issue. For instance, Mississippi and West Virginia are both considered predominantly conservative states according to their laws and viewpoints, and yet they hold the most restrictive policies on allowing parents to opt out of vaccinating their children.

Vaccines have been a highly-discussed topic of conversation since the 2016 election, during which Donald Trump and other GOP candidates claimed that vaccines cause autism. Although Trump has been practically silent on the issue since his comments ignited a fire underneath an already-existing debate on the correlation between vaccinations and autism.

In late January, Oregon state representative Mitch Greenlick introduced a bill to prohibit religious and personal belief exemptions from vaccinations for the state of Oregon, referred to as OR HB3603. Also in late January, Washington state representative Paul Harris introduced WA HB1638, which would eliminate personal belief exemptions for the vaccine that addresses measles, mumps and rubella. Both senators received negative responses from their respective state populations, Greenlick receiving personal threats via phone calls and voicemails.

A database updated by the National Vaccine Information Center reports that lawmakers have introduced over 140 vaccine-related bills in over 30 states since the beginning of this year. This is a significant increase compared to the 184 bills introduced in total regarding vaccine regulations over the entire course of 2017.

States arguing from the anti-vaccination standpoint argue that mandating vaccines takes away American citizens’ rights to freedom of thought and freedom of religious belief. Vaccine skeptics also believe that doctors should be mandated to provide people a list of vaccines’ trace chemicals and potential side effects.

Those pushing for vaccination legislation are driving forward the concept of “community immunity” or “herd immunity.” The CDC defines community immunity as “a situation in which a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to infectious make its spread from person to person unlikely. Even individuals not vaccinated...are offered some protection because the disease has little opportunity to spread within the community.”

President and CEO of the nonprofit Immune Deficiency Foundation John Boyle spoke about this concept at a March 5 United States Senate hearing, explaining that “the current decline in vaccine usage is literally bringing back plagues of the past. While those of us who are immunocompromised will suffer first and suffer more, the loss of community immunity is a threat to us all.”

While vaccination is not always mandatory for enrollment into elementary, middle and high schools across the country, some colleges require certain vaccinations in order to attend their universities. However, this is not implemented across the board. At SMC, vaccinations are not required but are offered to students at a cost.

“We’re all in one world, we’re all breathing the same air, we’re all enclosed in places sometimes. If we could all live in our own little bubble, I guess it would be a little bit different,” says SMC nurse Fauzia Hassan when asked about her thoughts regarding the importance of vaccinations.

Although the scientific consensus regarding harmful side effects from vaccines is that these repercussions are very rare, this does not assuage thoughts and feelings of those who believe that mandatory vaccination laws attack citizens’ rights to freedom of personal choice. As the year continues, the conversation about vaccine mandates will continue at the state and government levels, potentially altering states’ control over the health of their populations.