Washington state vaccine exemptions need to tighten

Despite the efforts of vocal anti-vaxxers, California has joined West Virginia and Mississippi in doing away with all nonmedical exemptions for childhood immunization. Washington should join their ranks.

California lawmakers were inspired to eliminate personal- and religious-belief exemptions after a measles outbreak in December at Disneyland spread by unvaccinated children sickened more than 100 people. Among those who were infected with the potentially dangerous disease were infants too young to be immunized.

Now only children with serious medical conditions can be exempted in California; any others refusing vaccinations would have to be homeschooled.

Even though Washington lawmakers made it harder in 2011 for parents to claim a personal-belief exemption, it’s still far too easy. All they have to do is get their health care provider to verify that the parents or guardians have been informed of the benefits and risks of immunization.

It’s even easier to get a religious exemption. No health care provider’s signature is needed if parents or guardians say that they are members of a religious group that does not allow their child to receive medical treatment. No one checks whether the religious group exists, even if the name is unknown or seems false.

The result of such easy-to-obtain exemptions is that Washington’s vaccination opt-out rate is 4.6 percent, more than three times the national average. Some areas of the state — like Vashon Island — have such high exemption rates that it begins to compromise the “herd immunity” that protects the community as a whole from infectious disease. To protect against measles, for instance, community immunization rates of between 92 and 94 percent are required, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

This spring, a Washington woman with a compromised immune system became the first person in the United States to die of measles since 2003. It is believed she was exposed to an unvaccinated person with measles at a Clallam County health facility.

And it should have come as little surprise when whooping cough outbreaks raced through several schools earlier this year, reaching epidemic levels in some places and resulting in school closures. Whooping cough, or pertussis, can be fatal in infants too young to be immunized. But many parents opt their children out of the protective Tdap vaccine, which also protects against diphtheria and tetanus (“lockjaw”).

State Rep. June Robinson tried this past session to do away with all exemptions except religious and medical. She said parents pushed back against the bill at a hearing with “false information.” Even so, it passed out of committee but didn’t reach the floor for a vote by a deadline.

Here’s hoping she keeps pushing this legislation. The health of so many vulnerable children and immune-compromised adults is at stake.

This column reflects the views of the editorial board of the News Tribune newspaper in Tacoma.