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Editorial: Losing herd protection

The Eugene Register-Guard, June 10, on vaccination holdouts:

Childhood vaccination programs are in danger of becoming victims of their own success — complacency set in as once-common diseases became less prevalent. Senate Bill 132 is an attempt to preserve that public health achievement by providing information. It’s a far better approach than waiting for a disease outbreak to refresh public appreciation of the benefits of immunization.

When the polio vaccine was first tested, parents lined up to have their children immunized. Fear of the disease was powerful enough to overcome concerns about risks.

All states require that children be vaccinated against a set of common diseases before entering public school. Forty-eight states, including Oregon, allow parents to claim an exemption for religious or philosophical reasons. Oregon has the highest exemption rate in the nation, at 6.4 percent. That puts Oregon below the 94 percent vaccination rate required to maintain what’s called herd immunity — the firewall against the spread of disease that is created when most of a population is immunized.

Last week the Oregon Senate approved SB 132, which would maintain the option of an exemption, but require that parents claiming it receive information about vaccines from a physician or watch an online video. A similar bill in Washington state led to a 25 percent decline in the exemption rate. A decline of that magnitude in Oregon would put the state back on the safe side of the herd immunity threshold.

Decisions to reject immunization deserve respect — but those choices should be informed. Many concerns about the safety of vaccines are baseless or inflated, while the benefits are often underappreciated.

Washington state found that some parents were claiming exemptions as a matter of convenience: “It was easier to sign the exemption than to track down records or get your kid to an appointment,” the state’s public health spokesperson told the journal Nature. Keeping track of vaccinations is no small chore — nearly three dozen are required by the age of 6.

But inconvenience would not explain the doubling of exemptions that has occurred in Oregon over the past 10 years. The erosion of the vaccination rate must be arrested or reversed, and SB 132 offers a way to do it without intruding on parents’ rights. The House should pass the bill, and Gov. John Kitzhaber should sign it. Oregon should not wait for an outbreak of disease to motivate parents to protect their children.

Albany Democrat-Herald, June 10, on timber country rescue plan:

The legislative proposal that finally starts to spell out how the state should respond in the (increasingly likely) event that an Oregon county financially fails isn’t much better than a stopgap.

But it’s still better than what we had in place before. Plan A, as Gov. John Kitzhaber explained to legislators last week, boiled down to this: calling out the National Guard. Plan B takes the form of House Bill 3453, which helps to shore up law enforcement services in counties teetering on the brink of fiscal insolvency.

“While we struggle with a long-term solution,” Kitzhaber told legislators during his appearance to boost the case for HB 3453, “we cannot sit idly by and watch these counties slip into a potentially grave situation in regards to public safety.”

Without the bill, the governor said, his only other option would be to mobilize the National Guard. He called that an “unpalatable option,” and it’s certainly true that it has a certain blunt-force feel to it. (It’s also true that, under questioning, he did admit to having another option: Asking legislators to approve more money for increased State Police presences in those counties.)

In the crosshairs are counties such as Josephine and Curry, which have been hit hard by the loss of federal payments meant to help cover the financial losses incurred when timber cuts dropped dramatically on national forest lands. The counties, which relied on the payments to help pay for local operations, now have been forced to make deep cuts in law-enforcement services.

Last month, voters in the two counties rejected property-tax levies which would have paid for law enforcement, pushing those counties a step toward the fiscal brink and prompting legislative interest in HB 3453.

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