Legislative Report 4/18/2012 - Immunizations Revisited

One of the most controversial bills to come out of the legislature this session has been the Immunization bill, S.199.  The question it addresses is under what circumstances, if any, should a child be allowed to attend a public school or a day care facility without having received the age-appropriate vaccinations required by the Vermont Department of Health. 

On the one hand, there is the issue of protecting the public, especially children, from outbreaks of dangerous communicable illnesses as a result of low vaccination rates.  On the other, there is the concern of many parents that some vaccines present a higher risk for serious illness than the diseases they are meant to prevent.  Another aspect of the debate is whether the statistics showing an increase in the percentage of children who enter school "unvaccinated" accurately portray the situation. 

I have been following the debate on this issue very closely, paying attention to the concerns on both sides of the issue.  I have been fortunate to get input not only from constituents, medical professionals and parent advocates, but also from members of the House Health Care Committee on all aspects of the immunization debate.  They have taken testimony and discussed it in great depth.  I believe the committee came up with alternative language that recognizes the necessity of immunizations for maintaining public health as well as the concerns that some parents have regarding certain vaccines.

The vaccination rates for all the required vaccines except chicken pox are more than 90% statewide.  The chicken pox, or varicella, vaccine is at 87%.  However, while the data may show satisfactory rates of immunization for specific vaccines overall, there are pockets of the state where vaccine rates are critically low and need to be increased to keep both children and immune-compromised adults safe.  The House Health Care Committee, after consultation with school nurses as well as parents and doctors, decided to rely on education rather than a mandate and included a $40,000 appropriation for that purpose.

The committee's amendment will retain the philosophical exemption, but will require parents to consult with their pediatrician and acknowledge that they have been informed of the risks of not having their children immunized by signing a form.  Recognizing that the statistics showing decreased immunization rates do not distinguish between rejection of all vaccines and rejection of one or two, or postponement of a vaccine, the bill requires two more years for reporting of vaccination rates among school-age children.  In addition to K and 7, statistics for 1st and 8th grade will also be reported to the VT Dept of Health by each school.

It is my firm opinion that vaccines are crucial to preserving the public health and that government has a responsibility to promote their use even to the point of requiring them.  Since the main objective is to increase the overall rates of immunization, however, I support S.199 with these modifications because I believe that it addresses the immunization issue with the proper balance.