Editorial: A plan to teach skeptics about vaccinations

Parents who refuse to immunize their children may soon be required to receive instruction about the importance of vaccines. It’s an important step in the right direction, although it may not go far enough.

The idea of a “vaccine safety education module” is included in proposed legislation (LC 982) before the 2013 Oregon Legislature.

Oregon law now allows parents to simply sign a statement asserting a religious objection to vaccines if they want their unimmunized children to attend Oregon schools. They needn’t cite any specific religion, and it’s become a way out for those who truly oppose the vaccines, as well as those who’d rather not bother.

One result is that Oregon now has many unvaccinated students, who are a threat to their classmates and teachers. In some schools, the rate of immunization is below the level needed to provide so-called herd immunity, leaving other students and staff at risk. It’s especially a problem for those who have medical conditions that prevent them from receiving the vaccines themselves.

It’s not just a theoretical threat, as shown by the outbreak of whooping cough last year in Washington and several other states.

If the 2013 Legislature approves LC 982, the religious reference will be removed and the education component added. Parents will be able to exempt their children from vaccines, but only after completing an interactive online lesson approved by the Oregon Health Authority. As an alternative, they can get the signature of a health care practitioner.

Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, chair of the Oregon Senate Health Care, Human Services and Rural Health Policy Committee, said the goal is to be sure parents fully understand the ramifications of their choices.

Why not go further? Why not simply ban kids from school until they get their shots, unless they have a medical reason why they can’t?

Lake Oswego pediatrician Jay Rosenbloom is chair of Oregonians for Healthy Children — Immunization Education Campaign, which worked on the proposal. A ban could be seen as restricting civil liberties, he said, possibly leading to an initiative challenge. Some parents won’t vaccinate their children no matter what the science says, he added, while others are basing the decision on misinformation.

This approach has a good chance in the Legislature, according to Rosenbloom, and a good chance at educating the community. That keeps the focus on the goal of improving vaccination rates and protecting kids.

It’s a thoughtful approach and a significant improvement over current law. If it doesn’t make a major dent in the numbers of unvaccinated children at school, though, Oregon should study the examples of other states and consider a firmer position.