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A new law removing the personal exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine will help increase the number of Cowlitz County children immunized against the diseases, health officials said.

The measure was delivered to Gov. Jay Inslee last week and is awaiting his signature.

Washington law requires children attending schools and child care facilities to be immunized against certain diseases. It allows parents to exempt their child from the immunization requirements for medical, religious or personal reasons. The new law removes that personal exemption only for the MMR vaccine.

Opponents of the legislation argued the measure takes away parental rights. Informed Choice Washington, an organization that advocates for “scientific integrity in vaccine policy and true informed consent,” held rallies at the state Capitol opposing the bill.

All of Cowlitz County’s state representatives and senators except Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, voted against the final version of the measure, citing concerns about removing parental rights.

Dr. Alan Melnick, public health officer for Cowlitz and Clark counties, said something that got lost in debate is the right of families whose children who can’t be immunized for medical reasons. People with weak immune systems, severe allergies to a vaccine ingredient or other medical conditions often can’t get the vaccines. People who choose not to vaccinate children put those kids at risk, he said.

“Parents who have kids who can’t get the vaccine, where are their rights?” Melnick said. “What about the rights for those kids to attend school without worrying about some horrible complication?”

About 5 percent of Cowlitz County kindergartners had an exemption to vaccinations for the 2017-2018 school year, according to school immunization record data published by the state Department of Health. Of those, 3.7 percent were for personal reasons.

According to the school data, 92.7 percent of Cowlitz County kindergartners completed their MMR immunization.

That’s a big increase from the overall immunization rate of about 20 years ago, which hovered around 50 percent, said Paul Youmans, director of Pathways 2020. Increasing immunization rates in the county was a goal of the organization over the last 20 years, he said.

“It’s a matter of schools and clinics and parents being aware that the health of their children and their neighbors’ children is really important,” he said.

However, Melnick said the school records need to be “taken with a grain of salt” because they are only updated at the start of each school year and don’t include homeschooled children. The other source of state vaccination data comes from the Washington Immunization Information System. According to the system, 67.6 percent of Cowlitz County 4-to-6-year-olds received both doses of the MMR vaccine in 2017. That’s only slightly higher than the statewide average of 67 percent.

Melnick and Youmans said the new law should help increase that rate.

Melnick said the new law should also help prevent an outbreak similar to Clark County’s measles outbreak this winter. The outbreak of 71 confirmed cases was officially declared over on April 29. There were no cases in Cowlitz County, but national concern continues.

From Jan. 1 to April 26, 704 cases of measles have been confirmed in 22 states. This is an increase of 78 cases from the previous week. This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1994 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000, according the Centers for Disease Control.

“I’m feeling happy that this outbreak is over but not feeling complacent or smug thinking it won’t happen again,” Melnick said of Clark County’s outbreak.

Health officials need to reach out to religious communities and “vaccine-hesitant” parents and listen to their concerns without judgment, Melnick said. Common concerns about vaccinations include adverse reactions, links to autism and potentially harmful ingredients.

“They’ve heard this misinformation, and they’re scared about it,” he said.

According to the state Department of Health, serious reactions to vaccinations are rare, vaccines and autism are unrelated and parents can receive details about vaccine ingredients if they are concerned.

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