With 764 reported measles cases in more than 20 states this year, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director Lieske Giese is endorsing proposed legislation that would eliminate the personal conviction waiver from the state’s vaccination requirement.
“I am concerned about measles coming to Wisconsin. It is all around us,” Giese said.
Measles was considered wiped out in the United States in 2000.
“We did not, as public health officials, think we’d see this again,” she said. “It is just such a communicable disease. Our best protection is vaccination because it works. There is a long history of science showing the safety of it.”
State Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, announced last week he is re-introducing the bill to eliminate the waiver.
“This legislation is about preserving public health in Wisconsin,” Hintz said in a news release announcing the proposed measure. “It is about protecting our children. With outbreaks nationwide and in our neighboring states, it is only a matter of time before our dropping immunization rates result in a measles, or other infectious disease outbreak somewhere in Wisconsin.”
Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said she supports the proposal. She said people tend to forget how seriously these diseases impacted society decades ago.
“I was so happy to sign on as co-sponsor to this bill,” Emerson said. “There are a significant number of states that don’t have these exemptions. This is something we can do to protect public safety, by closing this loophole. We need to get as many people as immunized as possible.”
State Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, said the best comparison is to think of someone who would dump harmful chemicals into an aquifer that everyone drinks from, making them sick. He also has signed on to be a co-sponsor.
“This (bill) for me is a no-brainer,” Smith said. “It’s a public health issue; it’s been highlighted in the headlines for awhile.”
State Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said she loosely supports the idea but wants to read the language of the bill before she would endorse it.
“Vaccinations have proven to save lives and prevent extraordinary illnesses,” Bernier said. “I advocate for immunizations.”
However, Bernier cautioned that the bill should not extend to areas like flu shots, and the bill should make it clear that employers cannot force their employees to get immunized against their will.
Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, said he has been researching what other states are doing and examining some of the false statements about immunizations in trying to determine what should be the best policy for Wisconsin.
“This has really popped up in the last two months,” Summerfield said.
Currently, about 90 percent of children in schools across Eau Claire County are fully vaccinated, Giese said.
“The goal is 95 percent federally and in Wisconsin, so we have a way to go,” she said. “In all Eau Claire County schools — public and private — there are 885 children who haven’t received all vaccinations.”
According to the state Department of Health Services website, 84.7 percent of children have received the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination by age 24 months; that is down from 85.7 percent in 2017. About 92.5 percent of all students in the state are vaccinated, and another 4.9 percent sign waivers for one of three reasons: medical, personal conviction, or religious reasons. Hintz’s bill would still allow for medical and religious reasons for opting out.
“There has to be an actual health reason,” Giese said. “It may be certain allergies, or they may be on chemotherapy.”
Eau Claire County also has 342 students in schools who are considered behind on their vaccinations.
“They aren’t fully vaccinated, but they are working on it,” Giese explained.
The UW System doesn’t require university students to be vaccinated to gain entrance into schools.
Sandi Scott, UW-Stout dean of students said they “strongly encourage students to be up to date with their immunizations prior to coming to Stout.” Scott said the university’s heath center has access to Wisconsin and Minnesota data bases, so health officials could confirm if an individual student has received a vaccine, but cannot run a report on all students at UW-Stout.
Giese hadn’t considered making it a requirement to be vaccinated to go to a state college.
“I think full vaccination of our population is a good thing,” she said.
There were no reported measles cases in Wisconsin in 2018 and none so far this year, Giese said.