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Oregon House to vote on controversial vaccine bill

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon House is set to vote on tougher rules for childhood vaccinations, after a key panel approved the measure Friday over the opposition of hundreds of parents.

The Joint Committee on Ways and Means voted 13-7 to make routine childhood vaccinations a condition of attending Oregon public schools unless a student has a doctor's note. The measure will now go to the House for full consideration.

The move comes as this year's national measles count is the highest it's been since 1994. Health officials initially declared the disease, which can be fatal, to be eradicated in 2000.

Oregon has some of the most relaxed vaccine laws in the country and is one of 14 states to allow families to opt-out of immunizations for personal, philosophical and religious beliefs. The state also has the highest kindergarten exemption rates in the nation at 7.6%.

Families could only claim medical exemptions to vaccines under the proposed bill. Unvaccinated children would still be able to attend online school under the bill, but they could not go to in-person school-related activities.

At least 77 people have been diagnosed with measles as part of an outbreak in Oregon and Washington state. Nearly all of those infected were completely unvaccinated.

Washington state lawmakers voted Tuesday to remove parents' ability to claim a personal or philosophical exemption from vaccinating their children for measles, although medical and religious exemptions will remain.

Gov. Kate Brown expressed her support for the Oregon bill, telling reporters Thursday that she's pleased the legislature is taking "a more proactive approach" than Washington state.

"I will be signing that bill," she said.

Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been grappling with where to draw the line between public safety and individual rights as hundreds of parents flooded the capitol this week to voice their opposition. Committee members said their inboxes were flooded with at least 2,000 emails from the opposition before the Friday vote.

Stacey Black is a mother from Eugene who said she skipped work to attend the committee vote and showcase her opposition to the measure. She said that, for years, she has relied on non-medical exemptions for her son, who is now 14. She added that she's concerned about the safety of vaccines, stressing that it's her prerogative to make health decisions for her child.

"I care deeply about a parent's right to make medical decisions for their children without being punished or penalized," she said.

But the vocal opposition didn't completely deter supporters, who maintained that science has shown again and again that vaccines are effective and safe. Proponents also say pockets of unvaccinated students contribute to the spread of measles and other preventable diseases.

Sen. James Manning Jr., a Democrat from Eugene, said that a recent measles outbreak at two Los Angeles universities added urgency for lawmakers to crack down on non-medical vaccine exemptions.

Nearly 300 students were quarantined Thursday at two major Southern California universities after health officials said they might have been exposed to measles. Manning called the incident "disturbing," saying that lawmakers need to act before more outbreaks occur.

"While I do support a parent's right to choice, I think this issue is much bigger," he said.

Oregon State Capitol in the spring. Photo courtesy of oregonlegislature.gov.