As a nurse, I learned how important community health promotion is and I see the central role vaccinations have in preventing diseases and creating healthy communities.
Vaccination is the standard of care across the U.S. and in Oregon. The majority of Oregonians believe in vaccines—in fact, 88 percent of Oregonians believe it’s important to receive vaccines on time and to follow current guidelines. Widespread immunization has been in place for the better half of a century. It is one of the safest and most closely tracked medical practices in the world.
Still, there have been more than 70 confirmed cases of measles in Washington and Oregon in 2019. Measles is a very contagious, very serious disease. It can lead to complications ranging from ear infections and pneumonia to encephalitis—a swelling of the brain—that can result in long-term brain damage, deafness, or seizures.
Thankfully, it is preventable. The measles vaccination is the best way to protect children and families against measles. It is safe and effective. The success of widespread measles vaccinations even led to measles being eliminated from the United States in 2000.
So how was measles able to return and spread throughout the Pacific Northwest?
The answer is non-medical exemptions.
Oregon is one of 17 U.S. states that allows vaccine exemptions for non-medical reasons based on philosophical beliefs, and there are coordinated groups across the state that aim to encourage these exemptions and loosen current immunization requirements.
In 2018, 7.5 percent of Oregon kindergarten-aged students used a non-medical exemption to go unvaccinated. This is dangerous to the people in our state who need to go unvaccinated for medical reasons—such as being immunocompromised due to cancer treatment or HIV—or children who are too young to receive immunizations.
When too many healthy Oregonians go unvaccinated, the vulnerable among us can suffer.
Working in an acute care hospital I have personally cared for children who are critically ill from vaccine-preventable diseases. It is heartbreaking for everyone involved, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can prevent disease outbreaks in our community through responsible immunization policies.
Fortunately, a bipartisan group of legislators led by State Reps. Mitch Greenlick (D), Cheri Helt (R), and State Senator Chuck Thomsen (R) have infused some hope into the situation. They’ve proposed House Bill 3063, a bill that would eliminate the opportunity for parents to exempt their children from vaccinations for nonmedical reasons. In essence, if this bill becomes law, Oregon children will either need to get vaccinated according to current guidelines, turn in a medical exemption form or be homeschooled.
Similar bipartisan bills (S.B. 5841 and H.B. 1638) are advancing in the Washington State Legislature as more people recognize the importance of protecting their communities by limiting parents’ ability to opt out of childhood vaccinations for nonmedical reasons.
Some might argue this is an impingement on individual freedom, but that’s just not true.
The choice to delay or reject some vaccines entirely is not just a personal decision. It can affect anyone you interact with on a daily basis, including colleagues, kids at school and neighbors.
It is the responsibility of health care providers, health care workers, parents, Blue Zone project supporters and anyone who desires a healthy community to encourage all parents to follow evidence-based immunization guidelines and do their part to safeguard our community.
The current measles outbreak is spreading. It jumped from Clark County in Washington, to Multnomah County in Oregon and up to Seattle. And it could continue to grow. Health officials have identified separate, additional possible exposure sites in Multnomah and Marion Counties and officials in Hawaii are concerned about an outbreak after someone with measles traveled there from Washington.
Imagine how easy it would be for an outbreak to find its way to southern Oregon.
Vaccine-preventable diseases do not know geographical borders. They can and will reemerge here if we do not stand up against threats to safe, proven immunization standards.
We all need to work together to prevent measles and other diseases from returning to our state’s doorstep. So share your personal experiences with vaccine-preventable illnesses with your friends, neighbors and community members, offer them a ride to the health department if they need a shot, and call your state representative today and ask them to support Oregon House Bill 3063.
It’s time to take action and protect our community from devastating outbreaks that are completely avoidable. Together we can win the fight against preventable diseases and create a happier, healthier community.
— Monica Meier, BSN, RN, CCRN-CMC, OCN, has worked as an acute care nurse in Klamath County for more than 30 years. She is a member of the Oregon Nurses Association’s Cabinet on Health Policy.