SALEM — A Bend lawmaker is in the middle of one of the most hotly contested political issues in Oregon — whether children should be barred from public and private schools if not immunized for measles and other diseases.

Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, is a chief co-sponsor of House Bill 3063, which would remove nonmedical exemptions as a reason for children to skip inoculations.

Helt said she was moved to action by a recent spike in reports of measles among unvaccinated children in Washington and Oregon.

“This bill will ensure that children who are vulnerable do not have to go to school in an environment which endangers their health,” Helt said Monday.

If approved, parents who refuse to have their children inoculated would have to home-school.

The bill is scheduled to get its first legislative test Thursday in a vote by the House Committee on Health Care. If approved, it would go to the Joint Ways and Means Committee to discuss its financial impact. From there, it would go to a floor vote in the House. The bill includes an “emergency clause” that would have it go into effect July 1, in time for the new school year.

Oregon is one of 17 states that allow exemptions based on personal, philosophical or religious beliefs. Deschutes County regularly ranks as one of the five counties in Oregon with the lowest number of immunized students, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

A measles vaccine was developed in 1963, and a combined measles-­mumps-rubella vaccine — known as MMR — was introduced in 1971.

Prior to the vaccine, the United States averaged more than 500,000 case of measles resulting in about 400 deaths each year. In 2000, the CDC said measles had been effectively eliminated in the United States.

But beginning in the late 1990s, some parents stopped vaccinating their children, often linking the shots to the increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The CDC has said the most thorough studies show no link between vaccinations and autism.

The Pacific Northwest has been a center of the anti-vaccination movement. Oregon has the highest rate in the nation of kindergartners who have not been vaccinated for nonmedical reasons, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

The Oregon Health Authority reported earlier this month that the statewide percentage of kindergartners who have inoculation exemptions rose from just over 1 percent in 1998 to 7.5 percent in 2018. For all K-12 students, it’s now 5.2 percent.

After a measles outbreak at Disneyland in 2015 sickened 147 people, California passed legislation to remove nonmedical exemptions for students.

Oregon and Washington state have seen similar efforts in recent years stall in the face of vocal opposition. Both states have bills to limit nonmedical exemptions before their legislatures this year.

As with past efforts, the bill co-sponsored by Helt has generated a wave of protest from anti-vaccination advocates.

A hearing on Feb. 28 drew hundreds of opponents to the legislation. Several hundred opponents rallied against the bill at the Capitol last week. Lawmakers say they have been flooded with lobbying visits, emails, letters and phone calls.

But this year’s bill has picked up momentum after more than 70 cases of measles were reported over the past month in southwestern Washington, just across the Columbia River from Oregon. Many of the cases were reported to be from children who had not been vaccinated.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency in late January because of the outbreak. A small number of cases have been reported in Oregon.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams went to Vancouver, Washington, earlier this month to advocate for parents to get their children immunized. Lillian Shirley, director of the Oregon Health Authority-Public Health Division, appeared with Adams. Clinics in southwestern Washington reported a surge in vaccination rates amid the outbreak.

Despite support from health officials, mandatory vaccinations have been a political flashpoint in Oregon.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, a physician, successfully pushed in 2013 for increasing the required amount of information parents received before opting out of inoculations. But her 2015 bill to remove nonmedical exemptions died in the face of strong opposition. She said at the time that her office received death threats from opponents.

Helt said her office had been heavily lobbied by vaccination opponents in recent weeks. While exchanges can be intense, Helt said she has made a point of meeting with both sides on the issue.

“It is important that I listen to everyone regardless of agreement or disagreement, remembering that everyone’s hearts are in the right place,” Helt said. “We all want what is best for our children.”

Along with Helt, the bill’s chief co-sponsors are Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland and Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River.

The legislation is backed by Gov. Kate Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.

Kotek said Monday that the legislation had generated more than 2,000 written comments submitted to the House Committee on Health Care, mostly against the bill. But she said she believed the bill has the backing of the majority of Oregonians.

“Despite a loud and vocal minority, there is a lot of support,” she said.

Kotek said while lawmakers understood the perspective and emotions of opponents, the bill would move ahead with just some technical revisions.

“We can’t just do a religious exemption — it’s all or nothing,” she said.

Kotek also said she doubted Oregon would follow in Washington state’s lead and have separate bills — one just for measles, mumps and rubella and another for all other state-required vaccinations.

“It’s a little hard to just do MMR,” she said.

Opposition to the bill in the Legislature is led by conservative lawmakers who see the legislation as running roughshod over parent’s rights.

Jonathan Lockwood, spokesman for a trio of conservative legislators — Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, and Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer — called the bill authoritarian overreach by proponents in the Legislature and the Oregon Health Authority.

“The reason I think you are seeing such a massive outcry, the huge rally, over House Bill 3063, is that the Legislature is giving the ‘Oregon Death Authority’ the ability to mandate the forcible injection of any drug they want,” Lockwood said.

Lockwood said the coalition opposing the bill ranges from religious conservatives to libertarians to liberal naturopathic advocates.

“The opponents are being viewed as one monolithic group,” Lockwood said. “They are very different, but on this issue they are very activated and brought together.”

Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, said he would oppose the bill if it comes to a House floor vote.

“My children are vaccinated, and I am vaccinated,” Zika said. “I see the value in vaccinations. But I draw the line with having the state tell parents what to put into their children.”

— Reporter: 541-640-2750, gwarner@bendbulletin.com

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