Whose “Rights” Shall Prevail in Vermont?
Last week I made the nine-hour round trip trek up to beautiful Montpelier, Vermont to testify in front of the House Committee on Healthcare. As I made my way over the lovely mountain towns and stunning valleys en route to the hearing, I was certain that my testimony could help sway the committee to vote in favor of the Senate’s bill to eliminate “philosophical beliefs” as a reason to override Vermont laws mandating vaccination of children enrolled in licensed daycares and public schools. With the strength of Every Child By Two’s board and cofounders behind me, and the personal stories of families whose children have suffered the consequences of vaccine preventable diseases, I made my way across the state confident that we could make a difference.
As I sat in front of the committee, the chairman made it clear that the committee had already spent the week reviewing mounds of data on exemption rates and vaccination levels, listening intently to opinions from both sides of the issue and were hoping to hear something new.
With the gauntlet laid before me, I began by explaining why our organization, a national organization based in Washington, DC, would be concerned with the public health mandates of the state of Vermont, or any other state for that matter. Why would a former first lady and the wife of a retired Senator continue to be concerned about the vaccination policies that exist in every state to ensure the health of school-age children? I explained that our founders, Rosalynn Carter and Betty Bumpers, began their efforts to vaccinate the children of their own home states during their tenures as First Ladies of Georgia and Arkansas in the early 70s.
During the Carter Administration Mrs. Bumpers, whose husband had since been elected to the U.S. Senate, worked side-by-side with First Lady Rosalynn Carter to establish the National Childhood Immunization Initiative with two goals: the attainment of childhood immunization levels of 90% by 1979 and establishment of a permanent system to provide comprehensive immunization services to the 3 million children born each year in the U.S. During that time, Mrs. Carter and Bumpers were instrumental in the passage of laws mandating school-age vaccination prior to enrollment in public schools in every state. They traveled all over the country to speak to legislatures about this important issue because they knew it would save the lives of children.
As nationwide efforts by anti-vaccine groups escalate, they are often focused on informing families about the simple methods to claim a philosophical, or personal belief exemption which is concerning to Every Child By Two since this will increase the number of children that may be exposed to vaccine preventable diseases in public schools. I explained to the committee, “Here in Vermont the seeds of doubt about vaccine safety have been sowed, and now the battle has evolved into philosophical exemption rights. A simple search on Google brought up a direct link to one organization’s website which states ‘Not all states offer a philosophical exemption for vaccinations. However, there are 20 states that do and if you live in one of them getting the philosophical exemption for vaccines for your child is quite easy. All you have to do is complete an exemption form (sample attached) stating you are opposed to immunization of your child on philosophical grounds. It is not necessary to explain your reasoning or your philosophies regarding vaccinations.’ Unfortunately, the families that are being misinformed about the safety of vaccines are also being targeted by these same anti-vaccination organizations with exemption language. The decision you make on this issue is critical and we urge you to support the removal of exemptions to ensure the safety of children in public schools and daycares in Vermont.”
The question at hand is whether individuals have the right to shirk the laws put in place to maintain the health of some of Vermont’s most vulnerable citizens; infants and school children. It’s important to remember that until a child is fully vaccinated, they are not protected from vaccine preventable diseases. Several of the families whose stories I presented to the committee had lost their children due to preventable diseases that they had contracted prior to being old enough for their vaccination series or before they had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated. These are the children, I declared, that need protection through wide-spread vaccination.
The Metcalf family is a perfect example of how much we depend on one another for protection. Julieanna was 15 months old when she contracted Hib disease during an outbreak of unvaccinated individuals in her community. Although Julieanna was fully vaccinated, tests were run in the hospital as she struggled to survive that revealed that she suffered from an immune deficiency that rendered her vaccines ineffective. After several surgeries, including brain surgery to remove a mass of fluid from the brain, she survived. Julieanna had to be taught once again how to crawl, walk and even swallow; she remains developmentally delayed. Her family came to Washington, DC recently to meet with members of Congress where her mother Brendalee stated that
“Parents need to understand that when they choose not to vaccinate, they make a decision for other people’s children as well. She did not deserve this.”
Many who support the proposed changes in Vermont, including the commissioner of health and physicians throughout the state who have treated children recently for diseases such as varicella and Haemophilus influenza type b, were heard by the Committee. Kayla Thomas, a college student from Vermont who lost her infant brother to meningitis, also testified in support of the removal of exemptions.
However it seems their testimony, as well as mine, which included a heartbreaking video story of a boy whose bout with chicken pox/varicella has left him with a lifetime of disabilities, was not enough to sway the House Committee. Instead they voted to reverse the Senate action, reinstating the philosophical exemption for parents who don’t want to meet requirements that their kids get vaccinations before attending school or child care. The next step will be negotiations within the conference committee to come to a solution that is acceptable to both the House and Senate.
It’s clear that the considerations in Vermont are similar to concerns that other states are experiencing nationwide. Just yesterday, the Today Show ran a piece on the terrible toll that pertussis outbreaks are taking on infants throughout the nation. The broadcast included coverage of a press conference featuring Washington State’s Secretary of Health Mary Selecky, who shared the news that her state has declared an epidemic of whooping cough. As many as 640 cases have been reported in 2012 as of March 31st, compared with 94 cases within the same timeframe last year. High exemption rates in the state were partially blamed for the outbreaks, although health officials warn that there are other variables that contribute to the problem, such as waning immunity among young adults and adults. Two other “hot-pocket” states were mentioned where officials fear that high exemption rates may contribute to the spread of vaccine preventable diseases; Oregon and Vermont.
As we continue to address these concerns, we will keep you informed of the progress that is made. We appreciate all the support we have received from parents and public health advocates who recognize the reasoning behind tightening restrictions on philosophical exemptions and we encourage you to find out other ways that you can “Get Involved” on our Vaccinate Your Baby website.