A group of health professionals and Vermont lawmakers sharpened their calls Thursday for the state to eliminate what’s known as the "philosophical exemption," a form that allows parents to opt out of required vaccines for school-aged children based on mom and dad’s personal beliefs.
If parents do not produce signed documents declaring their requests for a philosophical exemption, childhood immunizations are otherwise required under state law for several diseases. Those include diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, hepatitis B, measles, mumps, and rubella.
"This is a battle that's incredibly important," said Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge and Royalton, joining the push to increase childhood immunization rates. "It is incumbent on us as elected officials and members of society in general to keep ourselves safe and keep our most vulnerable citizens safe."
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Vermont Health Department numbers showed 3,480 kindergartners through twelfth graders were exempted from at least one immunization during the 2013-2014 school year based on their parents’ personal beliefs. There were 399 kindergartners with philosophical exemptions from one or more vaccines, the data showed. Both figures represent sums of students in public and private schools, the Health Department noted.
"This is really not a decision about parental choice," said Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland County, who plans to re-introduce a bill to eliminate the philosophical exemption that did not pass as drafted in 2012. "This is about how to best protect everyone in society."
As measles cases grab headlines nationally, policy makers in several states, including now, California, are grappling with whether to clamp down on these personal belief exemptions. The National Conference of State Legislatures said 19 states allow exemptions, with a twentieth, Missouri, allowing exemptions only for daycare centers, pre-schoolers and nursery-schoolers.
Maine and Vermont are the only New England states that allow philosophical exemptions, according to the NCSL tally.
"Our present law has not worked," said Dr. Louis DiNicola, a pediatrician at the Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Vermont. "More children are at risk today than they were two and a half, three years ago when this law was passed."
However, this week, even as Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., strongly urged parents to get their kids immunized, saying the shots work safely and are a boon to modern medicine, he stood by Vermont’s philosophical exemption.
"Leave it alone," Shumlin said of the philosophical exemption at a Wednesday press conference, repeating the words a reporter asked in a question.
After Sen. Mullin called for Shumlin to revisit his stance on the philosophical exemption, New England Cable News contacted the governor's office for a response.
The following statement came from Scott Coriell, Gov. Shumlin’s deputy chief of staff:
"The Governor believes that every child in Vermont should be vaccinated against deadly diseases, not only to protect them but also to protect others. He does not believe that there is any excuse for not being vaccinated. When it comes to the question of forcing those parents who refuse to follow common sense to do so, the legislature had that debate in 2012 and a bipartisan majority in the legislature passed a bill that requires enhanced education for parents and reporting on vaccination rates. The Governor signed that bill. The state also has the authority to ban unvaccinated children from school in the event of an outbreak.
"While the Governor believes there is no excuse to forgo vaccinations, he thinks we need to be extremely careful about passing laws that put the state in the position of making decisions for children without parental consent."
"Parents are concerned by the number of shots their children get at once,” said Jennifer Stella of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice.
Stella said members of her coalition do not want to see government making medical decisions for parents. She also said parents in her statewide group have concerns about adverse reactions to vaccines, worry about the number of pharmaceuticals their children are exposed to, and disagree with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling shielding vaccine makers from lawsuits alleging harmful side-effects.
"The vast majority of parents do vaccinate, but for the parents that are selectively vaccinating or even delaying, they need this exemption in order to proceed on any other schedule other than the CDC's schedule at this time," Stella said.
Backers of yanking the vaccine exemption, like Sen. Mullin, say the public health risks of unvaccinated children in a highly mobile society are too great to not consider the move. Dr. DiNicola said vaccines are safe, adding the risks of non-vaccination are more significant than the risks from receiving a shot.
In 2014, the U.S. saw a record number of measles cases, the Centers for Disease Control said. Twenty-seven states saw 644 cases, according to the CDC’s measles outbreak page. That is the greatest number of cases since the disease was essentially declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, the CDC noted.
"Vaccines only work if we use them," said Dr. Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care physician at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital in Burlington. "Measles was eliminated from the US in 2000 but every year, we're seeing more and more cases due to dropping vaccination rates."
The Vermont Department of Health encourages parents to go to a website it maintains called It’s OK to Ask. The site aims to answer parents' questions about childhood immunizations.