July 1, 2015

State Rep: Glad about ‘discussion’ on vaccination exemptions

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State Rep. Deborah Armstrong watched with interest while California debated changes to the law on exemptions vaccinations for children.

Little girl getting a flu shotCalifornia Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that would give California one of the strictest laws regarding vaccination exemptions. The other two states with similarly strict laws are West Virginia and Mississippi; Mississippi has the highest rate of vaccinated children in the nation.

“I’m glad to see that there was support and recognition that something needs to be done to not have exemptions be really easy, but for legitimate reasons to be able to have an exemption,” the Albuquerque Democrat told New Mexico Political Report in a short phone interview on Wednesday morning.

Armstrong introduced legislation in this year’s New Mexico legislative session that would close a loophole in the state’s vaccination law. Armstrong sought to remove the personal belief exemption from the law on vaccinating children, but that effort failed in the House Health Committee on a 5-4 vote.

Armstrong said that the California bill is stricter than the bill she introduced in 2015. The California bill banned not just the personal belief exemption, but also the religious exemption, leaving only medical exemptions.

“My bill still allowed a narrow window of religious exemptions,” Armstrong said. She admitted the way it was written would have left it constitutionally challengeable, so she “let it kind of die.”

Armstrong has spoken to many supporters and opponents of closing exemptions for vaccinating.

She described the “anti-vaccinators” who opposed her bill as “very organized.” She said they flooded her inbox and colleagues’ inboxes with emails on the issue.

“Most of the people who I talk to, some of them describe it as just not believing in the science and [that they are] afraid of the risk,” she said.

By contrast, doctors and doctor organizations have been supportive of her efforts.

“Almost every physician I talk to and every organization of medical doctors were in favor of tightening up the exemptions,” she said.

Studies have shown that vaccines are generally safe for children. However, high profile anti-vaccination activists like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey have said the vaccinations can cause autism. The study that bolstered the anti-vaccine movement was retracted after an investigation found the study’s author faked data.

Armstrong said that her bill would need to be reworked for the next time she introduces it, likely in 2017.

“If we’re going to have a religious exemption, it has to be reworked to kind of narrow that,” she said. Because of this, she is asking the interim Legislative Health and Human Services Committee to put the issue on the agenda for more discussion.

Armstrong also said she was hoping for some funding for outreach and education on immunizations.

The 2016 legislative session is a 30-day session, which means the only legislation that can be heard are those put on the agenda by Gov. Susana Martinez and those related to the budget. The state Department of Health provided Armstrong with information on immunizations, but did not take an official position on the issue.

Meanwhile, she will still be keeping an eye out on what other states are doing. Many paid more attention to the issue after an outbreak of measles at Disneyland in southern California.

“I’ll be watching what all of the states are doing, because there were lots of bills introduced across the country,” she said. “Because of the outbreak, everyone started worrying about it.”

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