A bill that would prohibit parents from opting out of school requirements for student vaccinations is heating up again. The so-called “philosophical exemption” clause, which exists under current law, allows parents to choose not to vaccinate their children because of philosophical objections. The proposed statute doesn’t affect the religious or medical exemptions.
The House Health Care Committee is poised to vote the bill, S.199, out this week.
Advocates on both sides of S.199 are lobbying lawmakers, and on Wednesday, they held back-to-back press conferences at the Statehouse.
The philosophical exemption for vaccinations is far stronger in Vermont than the religious exemption. About 5.5 percent to 6 percent of school-age children are unvaccinated for philosophical reasons as opposed to 0.2 percent for religious reasons, according to Rep. George Till, D-Chittenden, a medical doctor who introduced the House bill.
Members of the pro-vaccine camp say that unvaccinated children pose a potential public health risk because they can pass on infections to younger children and at-risk populations including the elderly, HIV positive, chemotherapy patients, and anyone with a chronic disease.
Vaccination rates for polio, MMR, and DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) dropped almost 5 percent for children entering kindergarten between 2005 and 2010, from 96.9 percent, 95.3 percent and 93.3 percent to 91.6 percent, 91.9 percent and 91.3 percent respectively, according to Till.
Till said that Vermont had seen a rise in cases of vaccine-preventable diseases, including 93 cases of pertussis (whooping cough) in the first three months of 2012, equal to the total number of cases in 2011.
“Some people will tell you that we don’t really need this legislation right now, that we don’t have a crisis,” Till said. A local hospital saw a case of the mumps two weeks ago and a case of the measles a year ago, he said.
Till and other health care providers attempted to defend vaccines against a variety of misconceptions about potential side effects [handout] including a controversial 1998 study linking the MMR vaccine and autism which has since been retracted. They also spoke about the high health-care costs associated with treating preventable diseases.
“The National Academy of Sciences took a very impartial approach whether particular vaccines have a particular adverse reaction,” said Till. “What they said was vaccines offer some of the best public health tools available to medicine and although there are complications to vaccines that need to be acknowledged, most of the adverse events reported in relation to vaccines are not caused by vaccines.”
Members of the coalition argue that vaccination choice is a fundamental human right, and seek to inform parents of the possible side effects of vaccination.
“I support vaccination choice as a human right. I think that human rights and ethical medicine support that view. There’s a 2005 UN universal declaration of bio-ethics and human rights, that says prior, free, and informed consent is required for all preventive diagnostic and preventive interventions. So that includes vaccination,” said Mary S. Holland, a lawyer who spoke at the press conference on her testimony in support of the philosophical exemption at House Health Care.
Holland also expressed concern about the side effects of vaccines, which can include anaphylaxis, vaccine strain measles, vaccine strain polio; they include encephalitis (brain damage, brain swelling), and death.
Holland’s comments about patient rights were echoed by coalition member Dorian Yates, who said that many parents were concerned by the lack of information provided by health care professionals prior to vaccination, which did not amount to informed consent.
“It’s about medical choice. It’s about transparency and government and corporate transparency. My profound feeling is that people need to be well informed and make decisions about their health based on being well informed and well educated,” Yates said.
“My feeling is that you need to level the playing field – you can’t say something is informed consent if you one, don’t have the information; two, don’t have the right to refuse it. That’s not informed consent, that’s informed coercion, informed mandate.”
Several of the parents present said they were not against all immunization, such as polio or DTaP, but that data had been skewed by parents who did not want to immunize against the chickenpox.
Even if a parent vaccinates for all other diseases their child is considered unvaccinated by state law if they do not receive the relatively new varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, which was introduced in the United States in 1995.
“We are talking about 500 children in the whole state, and this petition was signed by 1,300. So this issue impacts broadly more than just those who are trying to opt out of the vaccination, this is about keeping our choice alive, to say yes or no under an informed consent framework,” said a coalition member.
Vermont has not had any cases of mandated quarantine, like San Diego in 2008, though some coalition members said they would be willing to go through a self-administered quarantine if their children contacted a highly contagious disease such as measles.