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Vt. House debates childhood immunization law

By Dave Gram
Associated Press / April 12, 2012
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MONTPELIER, Vt.—The Vermont House has voted to uphold a philosophical exemption for parents who want to skip the requirement that their children get a series of vaccinations before being allowed to attend school or child care.

The 36-93 vote came against an amendment to eliminate the exemption that public health officials have blamed for lowering Vermont's childhood vaccination rate from 93 percent for incoming kindergarteners in 2005 to 83 percent in 2010.

The Senate earlier passed a version of the bill ending the philosophical exemption. Lawmakers likely will have to work out the differences between the two in a conference committee.

Those who wanted to keep Vermont among the 20 states that allow a philosophical exemption said the reported decline in vaccinations was exaggerated, because children missing just one of about 20 shots they're supposed to have by age 6 are counted as unvaccinated.

"It doesn't mean that we're at a critical level of non-vaccination," said Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford and a member of the House Health Care Committee, which drafted the vaccination bill. "It doesn't mean that we're on the verge of a measles outbreak or a polio outbreak."

The committee was divided on the issue, voting 6-4 with one member absent to maintain the philosophical exemption, and divisions among the members showed up sharply in Thursday's debate. The amendment's lead sponsor was committee member Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre, who got a big assist from Rep. George Till, a Democrat and obstetrician-gynecologist from Jericho.

Till argued that parents have a right to leave their children unvaccinated, but not to send them to school in that condition. "The question is whether they have the right to endanger other children in the school setting," he said.

He and other backers of the bill noted the recent increase in pertussis, or whopping cough, in Vermont, one of the diseases children are vaccinated against. Christine Finley, head of the state Health Department's vaccination program, said 102 cases of pertussis had been reported in Vermont so far this year, more than were reported in the state all last year.

Rep. Jim Eckert, R-Chittenden, another committee member, argued that the state was not seeing a problem that merited interfering with parents' rights to make a decision about health care for their children. Eckert also said if the philosophical exemption were taken away, parents would merely begin claiming a religious exemption. Lawmakers said that exemption will remain in place because any effort to remove it likely would be challenged successfully in court.

Jennifer Stella, one of the leaders of a group of parents who have been lobbying lawmakers to keep the philosophical exemption, said that exemption has allowed parents to have their kids get some vaccinations but skip others they perceive as being higher risk. A religious exemption likely would leave parents feeling a need to reject all vaccines because it would be "broad and categorical," she said.

Finley said 360 school children in Vermont were listed as having philosophical exemptions in the 2010-2011 school year; just 12 were identified as having a religious exemption. It was unknown if ending the philosophical exemption might cause a burst of Vermont parents getting religion. The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life reported in 2009 that was Vermont was tied with New Hampshire as the least religious state, with just 36 percent of poll respondents in each state saying religion was very important to them.

After defeating the amendment, the House gave the underlying bill preliminary approval on a voice vote. It calls for more educational efforts saying vaccines are a good idea, and a requirement that parents seeking exemptions fill out paperwork annually, rather than just once.

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