A question of balance

Vaccinations carry some risk, but it is outweighed by the risk of serious disease

The Oregon Senate has advanced a bill to require parents to consult a physician or watch an online video about the benefits of vaccinating their children before they could obtain a nonmedical exemption to opt out. The House should follow suit.

Oregon now has the highest rate in the country of parents refusing to immunize their entering kindergartners. The rate reached 6.4 percent of kindergartners statewide this school year, up from 5.8 percent last year, when Oregon ranked fourth.

Those numbers are concerning, but an even bigger cause for alarm are the much higher rates in specific parts of the state such as Josephine County, where 13.5 percent of kindergartners are unvaccinated.

This concerns health officials because the more children are unvaccinated, the greater the risk of a widespread outbreak of childhood diseases that can cause lasting damage to health and even death. There will always be some children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons — a compromised immune system, for instance — and newborn babies cannot be vaccinated until they are old enough, putting them at risk if they are exposed to the diseases.

Some parents who refuse vaccinations do so in the mistaken belief that vaccines cause autism — a claim that has been thoroughly debunked in multiple studies — or that too many vaccinations at one time pose a risk children's health.

Senate Bill 132 does not forbid exemptions for religious or philosophical reasons, but it makes them more difficult to get, and requires parents to certify that they have received information about the importance of vaccinations. Washington state enacted a similar law in 2011, and its rate of religious exemptions for kindergartners dropped by 25 percent the following school year.

Let's be clear. Every medical procedure, including vaccinations, carries some degree of risk. Parents cannot be faulted for wanting to protect their children from any harm.

But in deciding to protect their children from the small risk that a vaccine may cause some harm, they are exposing those same children to the risk of debilitating disease — and risking the health and well-being of the community at large in the process.


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