Conference committee agrees on vaccine compromise

Sen. John Campbell, file photo by Josh Larkin.

Sen. John Campbell. VTD file photo / Josh Larkin

Five of six members of a House-Senate conference committee signed a report Monday that would allow parents to continue to exercise a “philosophical exemption” to opt not to have their children vaccinated for certain diseases.

However, the compromise didn’t seem to make anyone happy.

Vermont is one of a minority of states that allows for the exemption; it also allows exemptions for religious and health reasons.

But earlier this session, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to strip that part of the law, based in large part on the state’s dipping vaccination rates.

Then the House voted overwhelmingly to keep the exemption.

The compromise bill stipulates that if rates for certain immunizations, such as measles, drop below 90 percent, the commissioner of the Department of Health would suspend use of the philosophical exemption for that vaccine.

Rep. George Till, the only medical doctor in the House, signed the report, but he said he did not think it went far enough.

“It’s a very, very small step, and it doesn’t go nearly far enough to protect the kids of Vermont,” he said. “It’s an abdication of our responsibility to our kids. We let a very vocal minority rule to the detriment of Vermonters in general.”

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell refused to sign the report. He was sitting on the conference committee as a substitute for Sen. Sally Fox.

“I cannot in all good conscience sign a report when I deeply feel we are putting our children at risk,” Campbell said. “When you look at the numbers for me I think you’re going to expose children to diseases that are clearly preventable. Some parents are afraid of potential harm vaccination may cause their child. I find it a little disturbing that we don’t care about the rest of the children.”

Sixty percent of Vermont children 19 to 35 months old are “adequately vaccinated,” according to a 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.

Some parents say the bill compromise goes too far.

Jennifer Stella organized the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice this legislative session. She said the 90-percent threshold in the compromise bill limits parents’ right to use the philosophical exemption.

“It basically says that only 10 percent of Vermonters get to use that right,” she said.

Stella has a petition with more than 1,500 signatures of residents who want to keep the philosophical exemption. She said Gov. Peter Shumlin supports their cause, and she is calling him out to veto the bill.

In an April 18 press conference, Shumlin said he thought the House passed a thoughtful bill.

“I do not believe that, in the end, the government should dictate to parents what inoculations their children should get,” he said.

Dr. Harry Chen, Shumlin’s commissioner of Health, supports removing the philosophical exemption.

The issue turned into one of the most contentious of the legislative session. On the one hand, parents whose children allegedly have been injured by vaccines say the exemption allows parents to make an informed decision. Some say the pharmaceutical industry has lobbied successfully to convince society that all children need to be vaccinated for every disease possible.

The established medical community says immunizations are a public health issue and that unvaccinated children can pose a health risk, particularly to children with compromised immune systems.

Because the threshold for suspending the exemption is based on a statewide rate, children in a specific school with a low rate of immunizations could still be at risk.

Rep. Mike Fisher, chair of the House Committee on Health Care, said the immunization debate has been one of the most challenging issues of the year.

“This proves to be one of the most difficult and controversial issues we’ve dealt with,” Fisher said before signing the report. “I’m in part baffled, and in part I understand. It strikes at a core conflict of values. I appreciate the frustrations. We’ve been living in it ourselves. I believe we have taken a modest step at both protecting individual rights and protecting the public.”

The compromise also would require schools and child-care facilities to make publicly available aggregated immunization rates of the student body for each vaccine. Parents using the exemption would need to provide a signed statement each year that they understand the risks to their children and others if they decline the vaccines. The bill would also require the departments of Education and Health to convene a working group to address how to protect children with compromised immune systems. The group will have to study the feasibility of allowing those students to enroll in a school with higher immunization rates.

The House and Senate will both have to vote on the conference committee’s report.

Alan Panebaker

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  • Eliminating the philosophical exemption while maintaining the religious based philosophical exemption is about as unconstitutional as you can get – not to mention just plain wrong.

    What is the legal rationale for letting organized religion (the religious exemption) have rights that unorganized (the “philosophical”) individuals can’t access?

  • Sandy Haas

    The conference committee bill actually strikes out the word “philosophical” and replaces it with the word “personal.” This means that if the bill passes, we will no longer have any “philosophical” exemption, only a “personal” exemption. The language from conference committee can be read in today’s House Calendar:

  • What in the world does the phone survey about the 60% rate of under 3 year olds have to do with school attendance? Especially since the survey includes vaccines that are not REQUIRED in VT? And the survey also pays attention to timing, so a child who gets a vaccine, but gets it late, is counted as unimmunized?

    The current version of the bill includes a lot of objectionable provisions. House members should vote against it.

  • “Sixty percent of Vermont children 19 to 35 months old are “adequately vaccinated,” according to a 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.”

    19 to 35 months old children in Vermont have NO VACCINATION REQUIREMENTS, therefore are outside the effect of any change to the school age exemption rules. I don’t know how much more simple this subject is than that. The vaccination rates for the vaccines actually required for school exceed 90% for Kindergartners and 98% for 7th graders.

    Bill proponents are using a CDC “Survey”, averaging the vaccination rates with a very strict criteria that classifies a VT child fully compliant with VT law as “inadequately vaccinated”, in toddlers who have no requirements, to promote this legislation.

    It is appalling to me that VT Digger continues to permit this disinformation to go unchallenged.

    The Senate voted for the bill because they were told by VT DOH personnel that the inaccurate toddler statistic was the school age rate,and no one corrected them.

    In the House, after a week of testimony it became quite obvious that there is no problem. Vaccination rates exceed 90% for all the require vaccines except Chicken Pox, for which statistics are confounded because of the number of children who have natural immunity. Infectious disease rates are the second best in the nation. The recent handful of Pertussis cases is due to vaccine failure and unrelated to the exemption rules. The apparent rise in the use of the Philosophical Exemption is due to Chicken Pox being added to the schedule in 2008. Take Chicken Pox out of the equation and you instantly cut the Phil Ex rate in half. Vermont is not at risk.

    This legislation did not originate in Vermont and has nothing to do with the health of the State.

    If you want to see the real facts and be informed go to

  • The 90% trigger is itself evidence of the fraud used in promoting this legislation.

    Vermont citizens have been told that low vaccination rates were the impetus for a House member and a Senate member to,”independently”, propose legislation to address the low rates.

    But if all the rates already exceed 90%, as demonstrated by the trigger,what really prompted the initial introduction of these Bills, since there is no vaccination problem?

    Too bad there is not a real investigative journalism organisation in Vermont who could dig into this…..

  • Irene Wrenner

    Karl’s link (May 1, 8:46 am) contains thought-provoking material indeed.

    Is the fear of non-vaccination rooted in relatively distant events and times? Is Big Pharma helping fan that flame? Have such fears curbed our will to even consider other perspectives?

    I understand polio once petrified swimmers, for example. In 2012, however, vaccines have been shown not just to save lives; other people have been harmed by them. … Time to fire up those critical thinking skills? Or not?

  • EllenDiann Messer

    The compromise is STUPID, MANIPULATIVE, CONTROLLING, and just plain WRONG! Who do these medical people think they are, GOD? They don’t even have a cure for anything, so why does anyone trust the vaccines either? Drug companies own the medical profession and sadly, the legislators as well. People need to vote these criminals out of office and run for office themselves. NO MORE LAWYERS in office, they don’t hold to the constitution. They want to manipulate law, not abide by the law!

  • Luci Stephens

    I grew up in Montpelier, and remember when polio struck. I recall seeing a schoolmate, either in person or in a picture, in an iron lung at Heaton Hospital- my recollection is that she ultimately died. Another friend wore a heavy iron and leather leg brace on her leg through most of her development, was never able to join us in games or sports, and has a significant impairment to this day. I also remember lining up at Union Elementary School for the 3 rounds of Salk vaccine; my recall is that after that series, there was no more polio in Montpelier.

    These diseases are very real and very deadly; as their incidence increases in places where children gather (schools, churches, recreation areas, etc) non-vaccinated children are at great and increasing risk to contract them. Regardless of parental objections or a child’s medical inability to risk the vaccine itself, these diseases seek and are often successful at finding a non-vaccinated host.
    Limiting the exemptions to medical-only cuts down on the statistical risks of these diseases spreading; allowing personal objections increases the risks.

    Why are children who are forced by medical (health) circumstances not to be immunized also forced to either attend school with children who present a very real risk to them or why might they be forced in the future to relocate to a different school where the risk is statistically somewhat less? Why should any VT child who cannot be vaccinated due to health reasons be put into this terrible bind by current or proposed legislation? What about the constitutional rights of these young Vermonters?

    This really is a difficult bind- most vaccines do carry some risks, some vaccines are demonstrably safer than others, some are more limited in their effectiveness, some are a bit dubious, etc. Parental concerns over vaccine safety are very real and absolutely legitimate. The issue of religious objection is even thornier.

    No vaccine should be allowed or required for public school attendance unless it has passed very rigorous tests, over a lengthy time, re: safety and effectiveness. I balance that with my belief that no one has the constitutional right to put other person’s children, in a public domain (particularly in a public school) at increased risk due to personal objections or religious objections.

  • Jen Emerson

    I feel the need to respond to some of the fear mongering and false information that is being let loose on this comment thread.

    The first regards the National Immunization Survey, which as a whole is a pretty good representation of vaccination rates across the country. A lot of people are concerned that the NIS includes vaccines that are not required in Vermont, and I would like to point out that the data the NIS collect reflect that – according to the NIS (which is found here: 74.3% of Vermont children have had the required vaccinations on time. On time means according to the vaccination schedule released by the CDC – essentially, a majority by the time the child is 2-3 years old.

    Now, of course this number is going to be different when we are looking at kindergarten rates, because a couple of years pass and people catch up. But the rates in kindergarten are still edging low, with 10% of children admitted on a provisional basis, meaning that they are not caught up on their vaccinations and they are working towards it (or perhaps they would be exemptors and they don’t return the form to the school). We can use the NIS rates again when they return to look at teenagers, and we see that again, Vermont’s rates are a little low, with somewhere in the mid 80% range getting a Tdap.

    These are signs of an underlying issue, and maybe the new education campaign approved by the Legislature will help with that, but I fear that it will take an outbreak of a preventable illness before people start realizing that we are dealing with a serious matter.

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