By Dr. Laura Pennavaria

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Last week a major new study yet again confirmed there is no connection between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism. Published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, the study showed that not only is there no link between the two, but also that children who did receive their MMR vaccine are actually 7 percent less likely to develop autism.

Yet at the same time this study reaffirms the safety of the MMR vaccine, health officials in nearby Clark County, Washington, report they’re investigating 70 confirmed cases of the measles, an outbreak that has prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency.

We must stop the spread of vaccine-­preventable diseases, and the best way to do this is to ensure most children are immunized. It is for this reason that St. Charles Health System supports House Bill 3063. Co-sponsored by Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, and Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, the bill would make it no longer possible for Oregon families to decline vaccines for their children for religious or philosophical reasons. It also directs the Oregon Health Authority to establish an outreach and education plan for disease control in schools.

Decades of misinformation and a perceived increased risk of autism have contributed to a steady and concerning decline in immunization rates in our communities. In the 2003-04 school year, for example, 4.9 percent of Deschutes County kindergartners had nonmedical exemptions for vaccinations. In the 2017-18 school year, that number was more than double — 11.6 percent.

As the percentage of unvaccinated children continues to grow, so grows our community’s risk for acquiring devastating illnesses. This is especially true for the most vulnerable among us, including children who can’t be vaccinated because of age or medical condition. A school community needs at least a 95 percent immunization rate to have “herd immunity” and keep diseases like measles at bay. In Deschutes County, some schools now have less than 80 percent coverage. To put that number into context: Just a 5 percent decrease in vaccination coverage can triple the number of cases of measles — a viral disease that is highly contagious, potentially fatal and for which we’ve had a vaccine since 1963.

As the region’s largest provider of health care services, St. Charles Health System emphatically supports vaccinating our children. Years of rigorous scientific research show us that vaccines are both safe and effective. To put our children at risk of being infected with diseases that are almost entirely preventable is deeply unsettling for our providers. In fact, we just recently launched a public education campaign promoting vaccination and you can learn more about it at vaxforthat.com.

Vaccines are among the medical field’s most celebrated achievements. By not immunizing our children, we are turning back the clock on the incredible progress we’ve made and taking dangerous — and unnecessary — risks with the health and well-being of our children. We believe House Bill 3063 is deserving of our community’s support.

— Dr. Laura Pennavaria is the chief medical officer for St. Charles Health System.

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