Arizona Republicans Want To Make It Easier to Skip Vaccines, Despite High Number of Unvaccinated Children

Conservative lawmakers in Arizona, a state with one of the highest rates of unvaccinated children in the U.S, may soon make it easier for parents to get non-medical vaccine exemptions for their children.

Dismissing advice from public health officials at the state and federal level, conservatives in the House's Health and Human Services Committee pushed through a series of bills that would alter vaccine requirements in the state. The most contentious of the three, HB270, lifts a current provision requiring parents to seek out an exemption form from the state's health department.

The other two bills would expand requirements for medical professionals who administer vaccines. HB 2472 would require them to offer additional testing, while HB 2471 is an informed-consent bill that would mandate the dispersal of additional medical information related to vaccine ingredients and risks. All told, the bills would ease barriers to staying unvaccinated while also expanding eligibility for personal and religious vaccine exemptions.

Republican Rep. Nancy Barto of Pheonix, who introduced all three bills, characterized current state requirements as coercive. She positioned the current legislation as prohibitive to parental freedom.

"When a parent only has a government statement that they have to sign in order to qualify for an exemption that they don't agree with, that is coercion," Barto said at a Thursday committee hearing. "This allows them to either sign that or make their own statement."

Barto had the support of several parents who spoke at the committee hearing. Brandy Williams, the mother of Logan Simpson, spoke passionately and said her son had a serious negative reaction to the Rotavirus vaccine. She said she wasn't fully informed by doctors of all the risks.

But several doctors who attended argued that easing exemptions would put immuno-compromised children at greater risk. What's more, asking doctors to perform additional tests could potentially impose a financial burden on patients, they said. A Titer Test for polio could cost a patient an extra $230 without insurance, doctors said at the hearing, which can be livestreamed in full here.

Despite a growing anti-vaccination movement in the U.S., the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends routine vaccination for children under two-years-old to protect against serious and potentially life-threatening illnesses.

Pediatrician Liz McKenna, representing the Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, read a prepared statement that warned lawmakers against pushing through the trio of bills.

"If passed, these bills will undermine our efforts to keep children safe and healthy because they would lower the vaccination rates in our communities and increase the risk of community-wide outbreaks," she stated.

McKenna pointed to decades of research that show that vaccines are some of the most rigorously tested medical interventions in the country. If measles were to come to Arizona, she said more than 5,000 kids could be susceptible.

"Deadly measles outbreaks, which had disappeared from our practices, are now occurring throughout our communities in the country where children are unvaccinated," she said, adding that the bills were "extremely onerous and in no way will improve patient care."

Arizona is home to some of the highest numbers of unvaccinated children. A 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that the state has the lowest rate for MMR vaccinates in the country, with around 84 percent of children vaccinated.

If the state succeeds in passing the bills, which must first wind their through the rest of the state legislature, it could translate to an increase in the number of unvaccinated children. A 2018 study published by the medical journal PLOS 1 found that, "the number of 'philosophical-belief' vaccine non-medical exemptions has risen in 12 of the 18 states" that allow the policy.

Anti Vaccination Arizona
Arizona lawmakers are attempting to ease hurdles for parents of unvaccinated children with a trio of bills introduced to the state's House of Representatives. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images