When kids are sick and contagious, school officials suggest they stay home.
It just makes sense. Why risk infecting an entire classroom?
Yet when it comes to trying to prevent a serious disease like measles from gaining a foothold and spreading, educators in Washington state have no leverage.
Parents are allowed to enroll unvaccinated children in school based on personal or philosophical beliefs. With exemptions this broad, there really are no exemptions.
But now there is a chance that could change. State lawmakers are considering making it more difficult for parents to register their children for school if they don’t have their shots.
A recent measles outbreak concentrated in Clark County was declared a state emergency by Gov. Jay Inslee, and now the debate is raging over whether the personal and philosophical vaccine exemptions should still be allowed.
Measles are serious. The disease is so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune also will be infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC also reports that measles can cause serious health complications, especially in children age 5 and younger, the elderly and people with weak immune systems. For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die.
And measles is not always easy to detect. Infected people can spread measles to other people, from four days before getting the signature rash to four days after getting it, the CDC said.
In 2000, the United States declared that measles was eliminated from the country because of its strong vaccination program. And yet, here we are, 19 years later with an outbreak in our state. So far there are 52 confirmed cases in Washington and four in Oregon.
This preventable disease should never have made a comeback.
But there are parents with very strong anti-vaccination beliefs who have refused to get immunizations for their children, and this has been a contributing factor in the resurgence.
Their fears are stoked by a decades-old report that vaccinations cause autism. The claim was proven false years ago, and the report’s author, British physician Andrew Wakefield, was discredited for unethical behavior.
But just try telling all this to anti-vax believers. They don’t buy it.
Last Friday hundreds of people opposed proposed legislation in the House that would require children to get the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. The only exemptions allowed would be for religious reasons, if the child has a weakened condition or if the parents can prove their child is already immune to the diseases.
House Bill 1638 is sponsored by Republican Rep. Paul Harris of Vancouver, where the measles outbreak has hit. The bill has Inslee’s support, as well as the state medical association’s.
It is a perfectly reasonable bill that protects public health. Those opposed to the bill, however, are vocal and passionate, and believe vaccinations are risky. They want a choice.
The problem, though, is that their choice affects other people. How would parents feel if their unvaccinated child came down with the measles and passed it on to someone else who then ended up in the hospital — or worse?
Personal choice matters, but public health matters more.