My View: Time to remove immunization exemptions
This measles outbreak is striking fear into everyone. Pediatricians have been hearing it on a daily basis from parents during phone calls, clinic visits and news. I understand. I have learned to fear many things over 11,000 hours inside a children's hospital and since, in my six years as a general pediatrician and mom.
I fear car accidents and drownings but also preventable illnesses like flu and whooping cough. I have cared for children with the flu and secondary infections like pneumonia and meningitis. I have cared for a baby with whooping cough who spent months on heart lung bypass machines in the ICU.
I fear measles. I have not seen measles personally, and I don't want to. Children are the most vulnerable to measles and its complications, including pneumonia or brain swelling or death. It is one of the few truly airborne illnesses with the ability to stay in the air for up to two hours so it can spread quickly and easily.
I fear for our community: 7.5 percent of kindergarteners in Oregon are not fully vaccinated. We need herd immunity (a vaccination rate of at least 95 percent) to prevent the spread of disease and our current situation is primed for the re-emergence of vaccine preventable illnesses.
What I fear most of all is that we as a medical community cannot fix this problem independently. People come into my office believing what they have read on the internet, be it pro- or anti-vaccine. Sure, there are families that are receptive to an expert opinion. Sadly though, enough families just do not believe in vaccine science. We need help in order to achieve a 95 percent vaccination rate and with it, herd immunity.
It is time for lawmakers to remove nonmedical exemptions from public school immunization requirements. We need to protect those among us who cannot be vaccinated: babies too young to be vaccinated, cancer survivors and those of us with compromised immune systems. In the same way that drunken driving is illegal so as to protect the rest of us, we owe it to the vulnerable to protect them in our community and schools. This approach does work.
The three states that have no personal exemptions — California, Mississippi and West Virginia — have some of the best immunization rates in the country. California went from a 92.8 percent kindergarten vaccination rate to above 95.1 percent after eliminating nonmedical exemptions. That is what we need here in Oregon, too. If the medical community cannot make this happen, then we need the law to do it.
Call your representatives and support HB 3063!
I took an oath the day I started medical school to first do no harm. Each day I try to follow that oath and conquer the fears I am presented, to do my best to help the small humans in my care. I try to remember, too, that there is really nothing to fear but fear itself. And measles. And spiders. And snowstorms in Portland.
Emily Puterbaugh is a member of the Oregon Pediatric Society, pediatrician at Broadway Medical Clinic, and mother of three young children. She lives in Southwest Portland.