State Watch

Arizona panel votes to expand vaccine exemptions

An Arizona legislative panel on Thursday voted to approve a series of bills that expand exemptions for mandatory vaccinations.  

The Arizona House Health and Human Services Committee approved three bills on a 5-4 vote along party lines, despite warnings from public health officials, the Arizona Republic reported.

Arizona parents are currently allowed to seek non-medical "personal belief" exemptions to vaccinations for schoolchildren in kindergarten through 12th grade. 

The bill would include exemptions for "religious belief" and expand non-medical vaccine exemptions to include preschoolers, the paper reported. It also removes the requirement for parents to sign a state health department form to get a vaccine exemption for their child.

Dr. Elizabeth McKenna, a pediatrician affiliated with the Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the committee that no major religion opposes vaccination.

Arizona Rep. Nancy Barto (R), the committee chairwoman who sponsored the three bills, said having parents fill out a government form regarding a policy they don't agree with is "coercion." 

"This allows them to either sign that or make their own statement," Barto said. "We are talking about a policy decision now for parents and we should attribute the best expectations on parents, not the worst."

The committee's vote comes amid measles outbreaks in the Pacific Northwest and New York state.

An outbreak in Clark County, Washington, led the state to declare a public health emergency. The county has been dubbed an anti-vaccination "hot spot" and had seen 64 confirmed cases as of Friday, predominantly among those were are not immunized against the infection. 

The Center for Disease Control, so far in 2019, has seen reported cases of measles in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Oregon and Texas. 

Washington is one of 17 states that allow "philosophical-belief" vaccine exemptions because of personal, moral or other beliefs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The vast majority of states - 47 - allow parents to opt out of vaccines for religious reasons.

An estimated 7 percent of students in Clark County were exempt from compulsory vaccines upon entering kindergarten by claiming personal or religious reasons in the 2017-2018 school year, according to state data.

Barto's two other bills create more work for physicians, AZ Central reported.

One would require doctors to offer parents an "antibody titer" blood test to see if the child is already immune to an illness or needs the vaccine. Critics say that the tests are unreliable and hard to interpret.

The third measure, an informed-consent bill, would require physicians to provide an additional 30 pages to parents with information about the ingredients in the vaccinations and the risks.

"Providing this book without the proper context and without adequate explanation may confuse and intimidate parents and result in a drop in vaccination rates," McKenna warned.

Barto insisted that the three bills she sponsored are about parental rights. The measures are not passing judgment on the positives or negatives about vaccinations, the Republican lawmaker said.

"We are here to acknowledge vaccines have a place, but it's every parent's individual right to decide the vaccine's place in the child's life," Barto said.

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