Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim) is strongly urging parents to make sure their children have been vaccinated in the face of a growing outbreak of measles in Southwest Washington.

“Just because the outbreak is primarily in Clark County doesn’t mean it isn’t a concern for other areas of the state,” Van De Wege said. “Measles is a highly contagious disease, and immunization rates have been dropping. We’re more at risk to this disease than we have been for generations.”

Jefferson County, one of three counties in the 24th Legislative District that Van De Wege represents, has the fourth highest rate of unvaccinated children in the state with only 67.3 percent of kindergartners vaccinated. The district’s other counties, Clallam and Grays Harbor, have vaccination rates of 86 and 81.6 percent respectively.

“Vaccinations don’t just protect the kids who are vaccinated, they protect others in the community who are at risk,” Van De Wege said. “People who cannot receive vaccinations, such as newborns or individuals with chronic illnesses, are very vulnerable.”

Measles can cause hearing loss, pneumonia, encephalitis and death, and can increase the potential for pregnant women to give birth prematurely or to a baby with low birth weight. The disease is also easily spread: One person with measles in an un-immunized population can infect 12 to 18 others.

Kindergartners are required to be immunized against polio, measles, chicken pox, pneumococcal disease and other illnesses, but state law allows for three exemptions. Senate Bill 5841, of which Van De Wege is a cosponsor, would retain the exemptions for religious and medical reasons but eliminate the most problematic: personal belief.

In Washington, for the 2017-18 school year, the percentage of kindergartners exempted for personal reasons was 3.7 percent, compared to only 0.2 percent for religion and 0.8 percent for medical necessity. Removing the personal belief exemption could have reduced the overall number of unvaccinated children by more than 75 percent, from 4.7 percent to 1 percent. In Jefferson County, the county with the second highest rate of personal belief exemptions in the state, the reduction could be even more dramatic.

“Because vaccinations have been so effective, the measles virus was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000,” Van De Wege said. “Now we’re seeing a resurgence, with statistics showing 90 percent of patients were not vaccinated or were of unknown vaccination status. This suggests the outbreaks are coming from the unvaccinated, and we need to take the necessary steps to safeguard public health.”