Dems Press On!

The plot thickens in Oregon’s vaccination hullabaloo

It’s so much more entertaining watching Salem politics than the Boehner and McConnell Obamadrama immigration fiasco in D.C. The Oregon Senate already previewed snarky political hot-air theater in its raucous partisan debate over low-carbon fuel emissions, and the House then passed the low-carbon bill to Kate Brown in a 31-29 dust-up after sticking Kate’s motor voter bill down the collective Republican pie hole. And speaking of Kate, Gov. Brown signed her first bill, a change in the outcome of class-action suits, a Democrat target since last session.

Politics may indeed make strange bedfellows, but lately Oregon’s Legislature is beginning to look like an Oddfellows sleepover. We are about to have a big debate over our state policy on vaccinations, and conspiracy theories abound. Science versus Scientology! The public commons versus private parental libertarian rights! High political drama from the right and left!

Leading the fight for the Democrats is Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, a Beaverton-area family physician who graduated from OHSU and practices medicine there. That’s what I love about Salem’s citizen Legislature; not only are there smart people who practice what they preach, but they are also trained professionals who can teach what they practice — like intelligent public health policy!

Dr. Steiner Hayward is sponsoring SB 442, which would ban parents from claiming non-medical exemptions from their children’s school vaccinations. Elizabeth and I met last week to discuss her experience as the sponsor of this controversial measure. She said she’d been the target of some very aggressive phone and internet nastiness. She begged me not to Google her name. Her haters want to tie her down and inject her because of her neo-Nazi attitude.

This apparently was quite hurtful to this nice Jewish doctor lady. I asked her if there was any organized support or opposition in Salem for the bill. She pointed to the proponents, the usual suspects, the Oregon Medical Association, the Oregon Nurses Association, OHSU, Oregon hospitals, the Academy of Family Physicians and various public health officials. Even the osteopaths support the bill, and they never agree with MDs about anything!

The opposition is indeed odd. First came the news that the lobbyist for the Oregon Chiropractic Association, Dr. Vern Saboe, announced that he would “host” the researcher, Andrew Wakefield, whose infamous 1998 study on the link between autism and common vaccines was called “unethically financed and fraudulent” by the British Medical Journal. Wakefield was scheduled to testify before the Oregon Senate Committee on Health Care before Steiner Hayward found out and canceled his appearance.

Then, out of the blue (literally), guess who else wants a piece of this action? Senate Republican Tim Knoop has offered to host Robert Kennedy Jr., who is renting a Salem movie theater for one night to show his documentary opposing vaccinations, a private screening just for the Legislature! Why? Because he hates the use of thimerosal, an organomercury compound once used in vaccines. However, according to Steiner Hayward, thimerosal is no longer used in children’s vaccines.

The bad science regarding this issue is legion. The only other organized opposition to the bill is a Facebook page arguing that personal freedom trumps public health and public safety. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court and at least one state supreme court (Mississippi, which also has the highest rate of immunization) have ruled just the opposite. Why the Oregon chiropractors, Tim Knoop and Robert Kennedy Jr. continue to rely on bad science is beyond me. I agree with Steiner Hayward and others that while no one claims there is zero risk in vaccines, the risk is low. While the death rate for measles is one in 1,000, the rate of severe complications for measles vaccine is one in four million. As Dr. Todd Huffman pointed out in a recent R-G letter, it is remarkably easy for curious or cautious parents to be misinformed because “junk science litters the internet.”

I hope this discussion doesn’t keep my clever readers from ignoring the really important debates in Salem, like SB 298, which changes the name of the State Board of Massage Therapists to the State Board of Massage Therapists and Bodyworkers. Stay tuned.