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St. Charles Health System supports Senate Bill 442

Author: Joe Sluka, President and CEO, Dr. Jeff Absalon, Chief Physician Officer, 3/5/2015 1:25:00 PM

In the early part of the 20th century, polio was one of the most feared diseases among parents. Every few years, it would sweep through towns in epidemics. Usually occurring in the summer months, the epidemics would prompt the closure of pools, amusement parks and other places where children gathered.

Most people recovered quickly from the disease, but some were crippled with paralysis, or died. In the late 1940s to the early 1950s, the virus crippled 35,000 people each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These polio survivors were a visible, painful reminder to society of the enormous toll the disease took on young lives.

Then in 1954, the massive Salk poliovirus vaccine trial began. A year later, in a press conference at the University of Michigan, Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. and his colleagues announced the results: the vaccine was 80 to 90 percent effective. The U.S. government licensed the vaccine later that same day, paving the way for it to be widely distributed.

Today, few parents can imagine their children getting a vaccine-preventable disease such as polio. Yet the CDC reports that two recent outbreaks of measles has infected 141 people in 17 states—including one person in Oregon—and could infect still more. Like polio, measles is a highly contagious, potentially serious viral disease that poses a great risk to unvaccinated people. Alarmingly, the number of people in Central Oregon who fall into this category is growing.

In the 2003 to 2004 school year, the Deschutes County Public Health Department reported that 4.9 percent of kindergarteners in the county were non-medically exempt from vaccinations. This means their parents declined to get them immunized for religious or philosophical reasons.

By the 2013 to 2014 school year, that number had grown to 10 percent. Unfortunately—but not surprisingly—the health department has also documented a rise of vaccine-preventable diseases. Pertussis, a highly contagious and potentially fatal respiratory illness, is one example: in 2001, there was only one reported case in Deschutes County; in 2014, there were 60.

A school community needs at least a 94 percent immunization rate to keep potentially deadly diseases like pertussis and measles at bay. Yet there are pockets of schools in Deschutes County with less than 80 percent immunization coverage. It is not a matter of if, but when, our increasingly vulnerable community will experience an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease.

As the region’s largest provider of health care services, St. Charles Health System is supportive of vaccinating our children. Years of rigorous scientific research show us that vaccines are both safe and effective. To put our children at risk of being infected with diseases that are almost entirely preventable is deeply unsettling for our providers.

It is for these reasons that St. Charles Health System supports Senate Bill 442, which would no longer make it possible for Oregon families to decline vaccines for their children for religious or philosophical reasons. Non-medical exemptions already received by families would no longer be valid with the passage of the law. The Oregon Health Authority already has the ability to engage in rulemaking around what qualifies as a legitimate medical exemption, as well as who qualifies as a health care provider who can make that determination. We would support strengthening that language, if necessary.

We believe legislation like SB 442 has become necessary. As the percentage of unvaccinated children continues to grow, so grows our community’s risk for acquiring devastating vaccine-preventable diseases. This is especially true for the most vulnerable among us, including children who can’t be vaccinated because of age or medical condition.

Vaccines are among the medical field’s most celebrated achievements. By not immunizing our children, we are turning back the clock on the incredible progress we’ve made and taking dangerous—and unnecessary—risks with their health and well-being.

We think this bill is deserving of our community’s support.

Sincerely,

Joseph Sluka
President and CEO
St. Charles Health System

Jeffrey Absalon, MD
Chief Physician Officer
St. Charles Health System