About 50 people, many of them carrying babies, pushing baby strollers or with young children by their sides – and a few expectant mothers – demonstrated outside the Vermont Statehouse on Tuesday, urging Gov. Peter Shumlin to veto H.98 and give them a choice on whether to vaccinate their children for school.
Shumlin is expected to sign the bill into law.
The legislation eliminates the so-called philosophical exemption, which gives parents the right to opt out of immunizations required by schools.
The law does not remove the religious and medical exemptions to the vaccines required for school entry, although it does make minor changes to the process of maintaining a medical exemption.
“The governor believes that vaccines work and that parents should get their kids vaccinated,” Shumlin’s spokesman, Scott Coriell, said. “He knows there are strong feelings on both sides of this issue.”
Coriell said the law passed two years ago did not increase vaccination rates. The governor hopes the elimination of the philosophical exemption will boost the number of children who are immunized in Vermont.
The Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice, which organized Tuesday’s protest, has published an online petition urging the governor to veto the bill; more than 300 people had signed it by Tuesday morning.
The petition language can be seen here.
Protesters hoped their loud chanting on the corner in front of the Pavilion Office Building where the governor’s office is located would be heard by state officials.
Protesters carried signs that read: “Veto bill H.98,” “support informed consent,” “my body, my choice,” “CDC science corruption” and “no forced vaccinations.”
Two years ago the Legislature passed Act 157, which came about amid a statewide pertussis, or whooping cough, epidemic. The law fell short of recommendations for universal vaccination, but added an extra step for parents who wished for exemption.
Morgan LaCroix of Bolton was one of the demonstrators, with her son, James, 5, marching beside her, and her infant Hazel, six months, in a carrier on her chest.
LaCroix said she suffered a “pretty serious vaccine reaction” when she was a child, and said families should have a right to choose. “I shouldn’t have to play Russian roulette with my kids,” she said.
She said James had received some vaccinations at the urging of her pediatrician, but she’s learned more since and will not have him vaccinated again. Hazel will not receive any vaccines, she said.
Dennis Morrisseau of West Pawlet carried a huge syringe in the protest, and said he hopes the governor will veto the bill.
“You’re not sticking me with anything … how simple is that?” asked Morrisseau.
Joan Kahn of Montpelier, who has two children, ages 11 and 15, said those who are urging for choice are not anti-vaccine for others.
“To me this is really about health freedom,” she said.
Dr. Sandy Reider, a doctor from Lyndonville, said the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice does not expect Shumlin to veto the bill, but said, “Health freedom is a human right from a physician’s point of view, that’s it.”
However Health Commissioner Harry Chen, MD, fiercely advocated for the bill in an opinion piece this year.
First citing the declared elimination of measles in the U.S. in 2000, he wrote, “Now fast forward to today … we are in the middle of a widespread measles outbreak that started in Disneyland, of all places. With more than 120 cases of measles … we are well on our way to exceeding last year’s total of 644 cases in the U.S. – the greatest number since this highly infectious disease was declared eliminated. How do we find ourselves in this dangerous situation?”
“Yes, this outbreak is a result of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children. There is no controversy. Giving vaccines, like the MMR vaccine that protects against measles, mumps and rubella, is the most important action parents can take to protect their children from illness or death.”
Daniel Hollister of Worcester said his younger brother, Michael, developed debilitating medical problems at the age of nine months immediately following his vaccinations as a baby; he lost his sight, his ability to digest food, and suffered until shortly after his fourth birthday, when he died.
Hollister said 35 years later, his older brother’s son also suffered injuries following vaccinations at the age of 1, and his brother’s family has received compensation because of the injuries. He said he and his wife have chosen not to vaccinate their daughter, who is 6, because of what his family has witnessed in two generations.
“My wife and I were on the fence,” Hollister said of vaccinating their daughter, but after seeing his nephew have complications, he said, “I don’t want to play that lottery.”
In 2013, the Vermont Department of Health began a public awareness initiative and website, called It’s OK to Ask, that took a conversational approach to the questions parents have about adverse reactions. The site also offers information about vaccines, school entry law, and a history of infectious diseases.
According to the most recent Department of Health figures, there are 3,479 children in Vermont covered by philosophical exemptions, which represents 3.8 percent of all students in the state.