SALEM — Oregon has the highest rate of kindergarteners with nonmedical vaccine exemptions in the country, and a bill passed by the state Legislature on Wednesday aims to bring that number down by making it harder for parents to refuse the shots.
The bill, which passed the House, 45-15, would require parents enrolling unvaccinated children in school to show they consulted a physician or prove they watched an online educational video about the risks and benefits of immunizations before receiving an exemption. The educational material would be consistent with information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It now goes to Gov. John Kitzhaber, who intends to sign it, said Amy Wojcicki, a spokeswoman for the governor.
Parents such as Stacy Mitchell, who chose not to vaccinate her son Iyler, say the bill infringes on parents' rights. "It's a violation of my rights to choose how to parent my child," she said.
Mitchell said an educational video won't change her mind. "There is no way I would put that in my son's body," the Clackamas mother said.
Her son Iyler, who turns 2 next month, is among a small but growing number of unvaccinated children in the state, a trend doctors and public health officials worry could cause diseases to re-emerge.
Not everyone can be immunized, including infants, cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, or people allergic to a vaccine. An immunization rate of at least 95 percent is crucial to minimizing the potential for disease outbreak, doctors say.
This school year, 6.4 percent of Oregon kindergartners were exempted from at least one required vaccination, up from 5.8 percent last year, according to state records.
The median nonmedical exemption rate for kindergartners in the U.S. is 1.2 percent for the 2011-12 school year, the most recent period for which national data was available, according to the CDC.
State law now requires all children in schools or day care to be immunized. Parents can seek medical or nonmedical exceptions by simply signing a form, and claiming a religion or system of beliefs.
Similar legislation was passed in Washington in 2011. The following school year, the rate of religious immunization exemptions for kindergartners fell by almost 25 percent, according to CDC data.
The bill sparked a fiery, partisan debate in the Senate but passed easily in the House following emotional testimony from two Republican lawmakers.
Rep. Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton, told lawmakers that his 4-month-old daughter nearly died when she contracted measles, whooping cough and chicken pox from her school-age sibling. This was during the 1960s before some of the vaccines had been developed.
Dissenting, Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, said the number of required vaccines gave him pause. Conger questioned the need for vaccines against diseases that he said are not dangerous, such as chicken pox, and said the state shouldn't compel parents to get their kids immunized.
Vicki Berger, R-Salem, said she understands parents' fears about vaccinations, and qualified her support for the bill by saying she doesn't typically vote for legislation that infringes on parents' rights.
But she said this bill is about public safety and would protect the most vulnerable, such as her grandson, who has a weak immune system.
"I have great fear, too, that my 7-year-old (grandson) goes into a classroom and has to fight off things that we've conquered," Berger said.