Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Enters Vermont Vaccine Debate

Kennedy testified before Vermont's House Health Care Committee Tuesday

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the nephew of president John F. Kennedy, testified Tuesday before the Vermont House Health Care Committee in the state legislature.

Vermont lawmakers are debating eliminating a state form known as the philosophical exemption that lets parents bow out of getting vaccines for their kids. Those immunizations are otherwise required for school attendance.

"I'm pro-vaccine," Kennedy told the lawmakers. "I had all my kids vaccinated."

Despite that stance, Kennedy urged lawmakers to keep the exemption in place.

He said he remains skeptical of vaccine safety.

Many studies have shown vaccines are safe. Groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics insist childhood vaccines offer the best protection against serious disease.

Kennedy asked state lawmakers to question the effectiveness of the Centers for Disease Control to assess risks. He suggested members of the legislature should ask themselves if the CDC may have been swayed in its backing of vaccines by pharmaceutical companies' wealth and influence.

"Before you remove the parental power to decide what kind of medical procedures their child has, let's make sure the regulatory agency is actually functioning," Kennedy advised.

The other side of the Vermont vaccine debate, individuals who want to see the state become less lenient when it comes to allowing vaccine exemptions, has been quite vocal in recent weeks.

"I'm petrified for the elderly," said mom Sarah Fogelman of South Burlington, describing her view that allowing vaccine exemptions poses a risk to public health for people who may have weakened immune systems.

"We need above a certain threshold of vaccination rates in our communities to protect our communities," added another mother, Megan Malgeri, who attended a press conference Tuesday urging lawmakers to restrict the exemptions.

Mia Hockett, who told reporters her daughter's immune system was compromised by a fight with childhood leukemia, said she fears if too many parents keep getting the okay to skip shots, it could put the whole community at risk for outbreaks of diseases like measles.

"The rate of philosophical exemptions of vaccines has actually been increasing," Hockett warned.

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 philosophies. 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.

The issue of restricting parents' ability to back out of immunizations picked up steam in several states following the measles outbreak earlier this year linked to Disneyland in California. More than 160 people in 19 states and the District of Columbia were sickened, the CDC has said.

The Vermont Senate voted last month to nix the philosophical exemption. If the idea were to pass the House, where it has failed before, all eyes would turn to Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont.

"I believe people should vaccinate their kids," Shumlin said last week.

Shumlin signed a 2012 law promoting better vaccine education and reporting of immunization rates, which also preserved a parent's right to choose to back out of shots.

"I'm encouraged; we should let it work," Shumlin said. "If the legislature feels strongly, based on new information, that we should take action, I'm all ears."

Testimony from other witnesses is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. No House vote on the idea to end exemptions has been scheduled, noted Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, the chair of the House Health Care Committee. 

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