The Senate’s lone physician hopes to finally convince his colleagues to stop giving parents the choice of sending their children to school without vaccinations.
But the last two times Sen. Ervin Yen, an anesthesiologist, has pitched the idea of retiring the personal exemption for parents who philosophically oppose immunizations, he faced such resistance that the measure never made it out of committee.
“In defense of my Senate colleagues, a bunch of them will say, ‘I believe in vaccinations … but I stop short of mandating it for everyone,’” said Yen, R-Oklahoma City.
Last school year, parents of 865 of 52,000 kindergartners opted out of the vaccinations for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; polio; measles, mumps and rubella; Hepatitis A and B; and chicken pox required to enroll in school, according to the state Health Department.
Oklahoma is one of 18 states that allows parents to opt out of immunizations for personal, moral or religious reasons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Twenty-nine others permit only exemptions on religious grounds. Three states — California, Mississippi and West Virginia — only grant exemptions with medical documentation.
The majority of parents opting out of vaccinations last year cited religious or philosophical reasons, said Dr. Kristy Bradley, the state’s epidemiologist.
Yen, whose five children are vaccinated, said that option endangers the health of other children.
“We know that the benefits of vaccinations far outweigh the risks, so it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I’m worried about immune-compromised children who cannot be vaccinated going to school and being exposed to a highly contagious disease that could kill them, a highly contagious disease that is preventable.”
But already a small, vocal group of Oklahomans is vowing to again halt Yen’s legislation.
“We feel like parents know their children best,” said Liza Greve, an Edmond mother of seven and president of the political action committee Oklahomans for Vaccine and Health Choice.
The group, whose membership tops nearly 4,000, doesn’t necessarily oppose immunizations but believes parents, not the government, should ultimately be the ones to decide.
“We absolutely oppose (the measure) because parents are going to have the responsibility if their child suffers an adverse reaction,” she said. “There’s a lot of concerns about the safety and efficacy of vaccines.”
Greve said her son as a baby developed bowel disease as a result of a vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella.
“We just thought they were safe and it was very, very rare,” she said.
Since the mid 1980s, Greve said there have been more than 8,000 adverse reactions to vaccines.
Her son attends a charter school without the requisite shots based on her say-so. She’s not sure what would happen if the state removed the parental objection clause.
“It’s very difficult to get a medical exemption because many doctors don’t want to give them,” she said.
Greve said each of her children have varying numbers of immunizations, based on their gender and needs. She said boys tend to experience more neurological issues when getting vaccinated.
But Yen said the odds of experiencing a serious reaction to a vaccination are less than 1 in 1 million. The odds of getting struck by lightning are much higher — 1 in 165,000. A child is far more likely to be involved in a car wreck.
Bradley said vaccinations are “one of the greatest accomplishments in public health.”
“It’s certainly one of the best tools we have in combating infectious diseases,” she said.
Those without vaccination are said to be the underlying reason for a spike in the number of mumps cases in Oklahoma since last fall, with two hospitalizations as a result.
Where Oklahoma had previously seen one or two cases a year, the number swelled to 433 in a matter of months — with nearly 80 percent occurring in the Enid area, Bradley said. Health officials are now trying to quarantine people in an effort to quell the outbreak.
Yen said disease experts suspect the outbreak started from an unvaccinated person in Arkansas, where the illness sickened nearly 2,000 people. It has also spread into Texas and Missouri.
Most Oklahoma patients were vaccinated against mumps, Bradley said, but the vaccination isn’t effective in about 12 of every 100 people.
Overall, Bradley said the number of Oklahomans exempting out of shots is “relatively low” compared to other states.
“We see that the majority of Oklahoma parents understand the importance of obtaining childhood vaccinations for their child to not only protect the health of their children, but also the health of other children,” she said.
The state’s Health Department recently targeted 471 childcare centers, reviewing the records of about 13,000 children ages 2 and 3.
At first, only 43 percent were current in their vaccinations, Bradley said. By the end of the campaign, parental action pushed that number to at least 90 percent.
The state’s overall immunization rate among 19-to-35-month-olds increased from 62.7 percent in 2013 to 75.4 percent in 2015, according to the National Immunization Survey.
That was enough to move Oklahoma from 47th place among the states to 18th, according to the United Health Foundation.
For his part, Yen said he’ll keep trying to overhaul vaccination laws every year until lawmakers actually agree to do it.
“We will get it done,” he said. “It might take a bunch of people dying (from preventable illnesses), but I’d like to get it done before that happens.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org