One of the most controversial issues during the 2012 legislative session was a bill to make it more difficult for parents to have their children exempt from the state’s mandatory immunization law. Vermont has three exemptions: for medical, religious or philosophical reasons.
The bill passed the House, but a small group of determined parents, who were concerned about possible side effects of immunizations, persuaded the Senate not to pass the legislation. Instead, the bill called for a survey of compliance rates in all Vermont schools.
To be considered fully immunized a student must have shots for the following diseases: DTaP for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; polio; MMR for measles, mumps and rubella; hepatitis B; and chicken pox.
According to the new survey, roughly 87 percent of all students entering kindergarten have had the full series of immunizations. That’s about the same as last year.
Dr. Harry Chen is Vermont’s health commissioner. He says the survey also shows that roughly 5.5 percent of kindergarten students have received a philosophical exemption from at least one of the shots. That’s the second highest rate in the country, and in a few schools, the exemption rate is as high as 35 percent.
“In some schools the culture of those parents who make the decision not to be vaccinated and to fill out that philosophical exemption is even higher,” said Chen. “That’s an area we can focus some of our efforts in terms of our school health liaison to try to focus their efforts in education on that population and those parents.”
And Chen is hoping that all communities will look at the survey results and make a determination about the best policy for their school.
“It gives the communities an opportunity to look at their schools, a school administration and communities themselves,” said Chen. “And even the parents, to make that decision about is that OK with them or do they want to try and do something about that.”
Supporters of the philosophical exemption say the survey results are misleading because a student is considered to be out of compliance when missing just one of the five shots. The most common exemption is used for the chicken pox vaccination.
It’s very unlikely that lawmakers will consider this issue again during the 2014 session. Instead, Chen says his department will continue to work with individual schools.
“I certainly think it’s reasonable to see how this information and our efforts can make a difference,” said Chen, “understanding that the Legislature did not support removing the exemption the last time around.”
The survey also shows that the statewide compliance rate for seventh-grade students is slightly higher than the kindergarten rate. Chen says he hopes to target more of his department’s resources at the younger students.
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