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Arizona lawmakers consider religious exemption for vaccines

Posted at 8:52 PM, Feb 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-21 22:52:38-05

PHOENIX — Arizona lawmakers are looking at expanding exemptions from children’s vaccine requirements as public health officials in the Pacific Northwest try to contain a measles outbreak that has sickened dozens of people who were not inoculated.

Republicans on a state House committee voted Thursday to create a religious exemption for schoolchildren, adding to the personal beliefs exemption Arizona already has. The measure also would get rid of a requirement for parents who decline to vaccinate to sign a form listing the risks.

It was one of three measures lawmakers approved in party-line votes after hearing hours of testimony from doctors supporting vaccinations and others who disagree with the scientific consensus that they’re safe.

One bill would require doctors to provide lengthy information about all the ingredients in immunizations. The other would require them to tell patients about an antibody test that may help determine if someone is already immune to a disease.

Approving the bills lends credence to skepticism of vaccines, Dr. Steven Brown, a family physician in Phoenix, told lawmakers.

“Voting in favor of any of these bills and encouraging more exemptions for vaccinations is dangerous to our citizens and sends the wrong message to Arizonans,” Brown said. “Let’s send the message that Arizona cares deeply about public health, children and science.”

Rep. Nancy Barto, a Phoenix Republican who sponsored the bills, said they’re about promoting religious freedom and informed consent.

“Frankly these are not in my view anti-vaccination bills,” Barto said. “They are discussions about fundamental individual rights.”

The measures still require approval in the full House of Representatives, and it’s not clear they will have enough support in the body, which Republicans control by a slim 31-29 margin. The Senate health committee rejected similar legislation earlier in the week.

The hearing began with a 90-minute presentation by two people who said the media and pharmaceutical companies conspire to scare parents into vaccinating their children. Opponents were given a few minutes each to make their case.

Doctors worry the measures would lead to lower rates of vaccination, endangering people who rely on others to be vaccinated because they have a health condition that prevents inoculation.

The public health benefits of widespread vaccination far outweigh the rare instances when vaccines cause harm, said Democratic Rep. Amish Shah, an emergency room physician.

The Arizona legislation goes against recent trends in state vaccine legislation, which have generally cracked down on exemptions rather than expanding them.

California eliminated its personal beliefs exemption following an outbreak at Disneyland, allowing parents to opt-out only if a physician determines there’s a medical need. In Washington state, the epicenter of the ongoing outbreak, lawmakers are considering eliminating the personal beliefs exemption allowing parents to opt their children out of the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

In Arizona, parents can cite a religious exemption to opt their children out of vaccines required for child care centers, but must use a “personal beliefs” exemption once children reach school age. Barto’s bill would allow parents to cite either reason for exempting their child from vaccines regardless of age.

It’s unclear if the change would lead more parents to opt out, but Cathi Herrod, head of the social-conservative group Center for Arizona Progress, said parents should be able to explicitly exercise their constitutional right to religious freedom.

Especially worrisome, said Democratic Rep. Kelli Butler, is the elimination of a requirement that parents sign an opt-out form that specifies the risks of each disease they’re declining to inoculate their children against. Barto said that’s important because parents shouldn’t have to sign a form they disagree with.

GOP lawmakers also voted to require that doctors provide a list of all the ingredients in a vaccine before administering it. Supporters said that would allow parents to make an informed decision. Doctors said it would require them to hand out 30-plus pages of complicated medical information that’s more likely to confuse than inform patients or parents.

“A lot of people will not understand a third of what you just handed them,” Dr. Negin Blattman, an infectious disease specialist, told lawmakers. “I have trouble understanding it.”