As physician leaders representing the Washington State Medical Association and its 11,000 physician and physician assistant members, we are writing today to voice our strong support of two bills currently in the Washington State Legislature which would strengthen our state’s immunization policy: Senate Bill 5841 and House Bill 1638.
In our individual roles — as a former health officer and director of the Snohomish Health District, a pediatrician and medical director at Virginia Mason Medical Center, and as the chief medical officer of Providence Home & Community Care, Providence Sound Hospice and current president of the Washington State Medical Association — we are, or have been, responsible for the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians, from Spokane to Seattle, from Snohomish to Southwest Washington.
And as physicians, we are also bound by the oath each of us took when starting our careers, to prevent disease whenever possible — for prevention is preferable to cure.
Measles is arguably the most contagious disease known. And although many children will experience relatively mild illness, measles can cause permanent hearing loss, pneumonia, encephalitis, and death. Before vaccines were available, infectious diseases (including measles) killed thousands and hospitalized tens of thousands nationwide. Worldwide, measles remains a serious cause of death and disability.
Vaccines are safe and effective in protecting those who are vaccinated. However, vaccinations are also about protecting those who are most vulnerable and cannot be vaccinated — newborns and those with compromised immune systems, such as persons undergoing cancer treatment. To prevent the rapid spread of measles and protect these people as well, it is critical that we vaccinate more than 95 percent of the population, a level Washington state fails to reach. The same is true of other vaccine-preventable diseases, such as whooping cough (pertussis). For this reason, the Washington State Medical Association supports the elimination of personal and philosophical vaccine exemptions from school, child care, and preschool immunization requirements.
As physicians with a long history in Washington state, the risk posed by non- and under-vaccination hits close to home: we think about the many patients we’ve treated who are unable to be vaccinated, children and adults alike, and who have so much to lose during outbreaks. And during the pertussis outbreak and H1N1 influenza pandemic, even with a public health system in full response, we watched as a number of unvaccinated Washington residents spread disease, with some dying.
To the many Washingtonians reading this editorial who are frustrated, and in some cases afraid, as a result of the current outbreak of measles in Clark County, know that many of our state’s physicians serve on the front lines of treatment and our public health rapid response system, and they are doing all they can to treat those affected and to manage the crisis.
Many of you may be stumbling across or targeted with dangerous misinformation and damaging myths about vaccinations on social media. We urge you to talk with your physician if you have questions about the safety of vaccines. Physicians are your trusted partner in good health — we have dedicated our lives to your health and the health of our communities. We are here to listen to your concerns and to help you make the best health decisions for you and your family.
Studies have consistently demonstrated that vaccines are the best way to protect our children from potentially life-changing illness. Vaccines are safe, effective, and save lives, and they don’t just protect the individual, they protect our entire society.
Your state’s physicians have come together to urge our elected officials to do what 33 other states have done — remove the personal and philosophical exemption to vaccination to help protect each and every Washington resident and help our state realize the promise of a future free of these preventable diseases. We hope you, our patients, will join us in this effort.
Dr. Tom Schaaf is Washington State Medical Association president, and chief medical officer of Providence Home & Community Care and Providence Sound Hospice. Dr. Donna Smith is Washington State Medical Association immediate past-president and executive medical director of Virginia Mason Medical Center. Dr. Gary Goldbaum is a member of the Washington State Medical Association board of trustees and former Snohomish County public health officer.