A measure to remove the philosophical exemption for the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine cleared the Washington state Senate Wednesday night.
After some initial confusion about whether the bill was properly brought to the floor ahead of a deadline, majority Democrats returned to the floor in the evening to debate the measure and passed it on a 25-22 vote. The House passed the measure last month, but because it was amended by a Senate committee the bill heads back across the rotunda for a final vote.
The bill was introduced amid a measles outbreak in the state that sickened 74 people. The last case identified in southwestern Washington's Clark County — where 73 of the cases have been reported — was on March 18. An outbreak is considered over after 42 days with no new cases.
A lawmaker from that region, Democratic Sen. Annette Cleveland of Vancouver, said that a vote against the measure is "a vote against public health."
"Our responsibility is to take swift action to prevent the potential for needless suffering," she said.
Washington is among 17 states that allow some type of non-medical vaccine exemption for personal or philosophical beliefs. In addition, medical and religious exemptions exist for attendance at the state's public or private schools or licensed day-care centers.
Unless an exemption is claimed, children are required to be vaccinated against or show proof of acquired immunity for nearly a dozen diseases — including polio, whooping cough and mumps — before they can attend school or child care centers. While the Senate had first sought a bill that would have removed the philosophical exemption for all required childhood vaccines, they ultimately chose to move forward with the House's more limited measure to focus on the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine, also known as MMR.
Republican Sen. Steve O'Ban of University Place said that passage of the bill is an inappropriate exertion of government power.
"We are going to mandate and require that parents who have exercised a choice not to have their children undergo an invasive procedure must now do so," he said.
More than a dozen amendments were rejected, including one that would have removed immunization requirements for students attending private schools and another that would have required the Board of Health to receive legislative approval to add vaccines to the list of required immunizations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week said that 555 measles cases have been confirmed so far this year, up from 465 as of a week ago.
While 20 states, including Washington, have reported cases, New York has been the epicenter, with nearly two-thirds of all cases.
Four percent of Washington K-12 students have non-medical vaccine exemptions, the state Department of Health said. Of those, 3.7% of the exemptions are personal, and the rest are religious.
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