photo by Mary Broten

Washington State Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, participates in the first meeting of the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee at Vancouver City Hall Oct. 25. Harris recently received recognition as the Washington State Medical Association’s Legislator of the Year Award for his work on laws removing a personal exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine as well as raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21.

State Rep. Paul Harris has received accolades from state and national health groups for his work on legislation that passed this year, which included high-profile bills regarding tobacco and vaccines.

The Washington State Medical Association bestowed the Legislator of the Year Award on Harris, R-Vancouver, during the association’s annual meeting in SeaTac Oct. 12. A release from the group pointed to House Bill 1074, which raised the  legal age to buy tobacco and vapor products to 21, and House Bill 1638, which removed the personal exemption from the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, as key reasons for the award. Both of the bills were signed into law this year.

“The WSMA can count on Representative Harris to consider the impact of legislation and budget issues on Washington’s physician community,” said past association president Nick Rajacich in the release. “Overall, the advocacy and leadership demonstrated by Rep. Harris on issues impacting public health and practicing physicians was unrivaled during the 2019 legislative session.”

“I really appreciate our doctors in our state,” Harris said, calling the recognition “an honor.” He said he has served on the House Health Care and Wellness Committee since he started as a legislator. He was first elected in 2010. 

Apart from the medical association’s award, Harris also received the National Distinguished Advocacy Award from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, specifically for the “Tobacco 21” legislation. Getting that legislation passed was a five-year process, according to a Washington State House Republicans release, with Harris commenting during an interview with The Reflector that although it was a longer process getting that legislation passed, it wasn’t as controversial as the MMR vaccine exemption.

Harris was not expecting the amount of pushback he got on the MMR vaccine bill, which as he told Washington State Wire in an interview published in September included death threats. He said he felt that Washington State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, who championed the legislation, probably received more of that pushback than he did.

“The divisiveness of this issue is a little strange,” Harris said. 

He said there were a few children of congregates at his church who were medically compromised and could not receive vaccinations themselves, leading to a need for “herd immunity” by those who could receive the shots to protect those who could not.

“They have no answer for those people,” Harris said about individuals against vaccines.

Having Gov. Jay Inslee sign the MMR vaccination bill wasn’t the end of the road for Harris on the matter, as he said he had done somewhere around 20 speaking engagements in the past few months on the topic. Harris said having the conviction to get the bills signed into law was important for the success of both.

“You have to make sure that when you get started in a couple of these bills that are going to be somewhat controversial that you better believe what you believe in,” Harris said, adding he never questioned the benefits of vaccines or the harm from tobacco use.

As to why the MMR vaccine bill was so divisive, Harris believes misinformation regarding vaccines led to the controversy. He said that though there were few deaths in the U.S. from measles, worldwide there were 110,000 deaths from the disease in 2017, mostly under the age of 5, according to World Health Organization statistics.

“Because we have done such a good job in the United States, many people feel like we just don’t need to pay attention to this as much any more,” Harris said. “It’s just the opposite. We’ll end up with this back in our lives, as we started to have, and it could be very serious.”

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