In a 57-40 vote late Tuesday night, the Washington state House of Representatives passed a bill that could help address the state's measles outbreak, which so far has sickened at least 71 people—and counting. The bill goes to the state Senate next.
Currently, parents who oppose vaccines can claim medical, personal, or philosophical exemptions. This bill eliminates personal and philosophical exemptions for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines, which are required for anyone attending both public and private schools, day cares, and colleges in Washington state.
While the bill is widely supported by pediatricians and public health experts, it's faced fierce opposition from vaccine skeptics, including Robert Kennedy Jr., a anti-vax activist who continues to claim that vaccines cause autism and who testified before the House in Olympia. Last month, I interviewed another one of these skeptics: Bernadette Pajer, the head of Informed Choice Washington, who told me that she got involved in this fight after her now 15-year-old son suffered from a "vaccine injury" as a child.
“I know vaccines are designed to protect children from infection," she said, "but they are pharmaceutical products made by the same companies that make opioids."
Pajer also blamed the current measles outbreak on a Ukrainian community in southwest Washington and Oregon. And there is some truth to this claim: According to KOMO News, "At least eight outbreak sites in Clark County or Portland are, or have been, in Slavic churches or schools. In fact, Russian-speaking communities, according to a 2012 report—the last of its kind—have the lowest vaccination rates in Washington state."
KUOW reported on this connection as well, tying the low rates of vaccination in Slavic communities to "fear about side effects and conspiracy theories about the government and the medical establishment."
That's not so different from anti-vax parents anywhere else. I follow a number of "informed choice" and vaccine skeptical Facebook groups and they are filled with memes and poorly sourced articles making outlandish claims about the danger of vaccination.
In one recent post, a pregnant woman said she was scared to get a Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) vaccine and multiple people in the group told her that she should be scared because half of pregnant women who get the Tdap vaccine end up miscarrying. It's an absurd claim—the CDC recommends that all pregnant women get the Tdap vaccine between 27 and 36 weeks of gestation—but these people were totally convinced the vaccine would not just hurt but actually kill their prenatal children.
Changing peoples' minds on this and other hot button issues is difficult, but not impossible.
Citing statistics and data is rarely effective, but Douglas Diekema, a physician and professor of pediatrics and bioethics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told me in an interview in January that he frequently encounters vaccine skeptics at Seattle Childrens, where he works in the emergency department. When parents bring their kids in with nasty cuts and are afraid to get them the tetanus shot, Diekema says his approach is to describe what tetanus could do to their children. This, Diekema said, doesn't always work, but frequently it's enough to convince wary parents.
Some parents, however, will never be convinced that vaccines are safe, no matter how many studies refute the myths that vaccines cause autism and other developmental problems.
When asked for comment on the House vote on Tuesday night, Bernadette Pajer said, "It is irresponsible and unethical to deny children access to daycare and school because their parents choose not to expose them to a pharmaceutical product that is currently the subject of a federal fraud case and that comes with the risk of injury or death." (The fraud case she is talking about here is a whistleblower case in which former Merck employees allege that the company overstated the efficacy of the measles, mumps, rubella vaccines, but there remains no evidence that the vaccine comes with a risk of injury or death.)
Ending the philosophical exemptions for vaccines will certainly come as a blow to parents like Pajer in Washington State. There is, however, one way to get around vaccine requirements, and that's to home school your children. Hopefully they'll survive long enough to grow up, move out, and get vaccinated without their parents' permission.