Proposed Legislation Would Remove Philosophical Exemption For Vaccinations

Feb 3, 2015

The national outbreak of measles is causing some lawmakers to reconsider current exemptions to Vermont's child immunization laws, and supporters and opponents of the exemptions are getting ready for an intense debate at the Statehouse.

Under current law, the state requires five immunizations before a child can enter kindergarten. These cover measles, mumps and rubella, polio, hepatitis B, chicken pox and diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.

However, parents can exempt their children from any or all of these vaccines on religious grounds, for medical conditions, or for philosophical reasons. According to the Vermont Health Department, the vast majority of exemptions are philosophical.

In 2012, the Senate passed a bill eliminating the philosophical exemption, but the measure died in the House. Instead, lawmakers passed a bill that requires schools to report their immunization rates.

The most recent report shows that parents of 5 percent of all public school kindergarten students claimed at least one exemption. The rate for private schools for the same age group is just over 14 percent.

Rutland senator Kevin Mullin, the lead sponsor of the 2012 legislation, says the national outbreak of measles highlights the need to reintroduce the bill this session.

"Once again we see where people are basing their decisions on old studies and old information, and I think we need to have that discussion again in the Statehouse." - Sen. Kevin Mullin
Of the 205 exempt kindergarteners in Vermont public schools, 192 of them were not vaccinated because their parents or guardians took advantage of the philosophical exemption.
Credit DATA SOURCE: VERMONT DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH / GRAPHIC BY TAYLOR DOBBS, VPR

“Once again we see where people are basing their decisions on old studies and old information, and I think we need to have that discussion again in the Statehouse,” Mullin says.

According to Mullin, the current school reporting law is helpful, but doesn't go nearly far enough.

"I'm not so sure it gets to the root cause of the problem,” Mullin says. “And the root cause is that people are making bad decisions based on bad science."

Vermont Public Schools With Measles/Mumps/Rubella Vaccination Rates Below 90 Percent (2013-2014)

  1. Windham Elementary - 60 percent
  2. Marlboro Elementary - 71.3 percent
  3. Dover Elementary - 75.3 percent
  4. Ripton Elementary - 78.9 percent
  5. Wolcott Elementary - 84.2 percent
  6. Lincoln Community - 84.3 percent
  7. Craftsbury - 84.5 percent
  8. Middletown Springs Elementary - 85.2 percent
  9. Warren Elementary - 85.3 percent
  10. Sunderland Elementary - 85.9 percent
  11. Rumney Memorial - 86.3 percent
  12. Roxbury Village - 86.7 percent
  13. Winooski High School - 87.6 percent
  14. Cabot - 87.6 percent
  15. Waterville Elementary - 88.5 percent
  16. Doty Memorial - 88.7 percent
  17. Union Elementary - 88.7 percent
  18. Beeman Elementary - 88.8 percent
  19. Leicester Central - 88.9 percent
  20. Fayston Elementary - 89.9 percent
  21. Lowell Graded - 89.9 percent

Jennifer Stella heads the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice. She says there's clear evidence that some vaccines can cause health problems.

"Senator Mullin is saying that those parents who witness a defective product are reading bad science,” Stella says. “Just because you don't agree with somebody's choice doesn't mean you just revoke it."

"Just because you don't agree with somebody's choice doesn't mean you just revoke it." - Jennifer Stella, Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice

And Stella says the issue is basically one of parental rights.

"I understand that he [Mullin] may want to make vaccines an exception to the rule that parents are really charged with making those medical decisions for their children,” she says. “But my question I guess to him would be, where does it stop?"

A companion bill will also be introduced in the House.

Update 11:35 p.m. Feb. 3, 2015 An earlier version of this post included an outdated list of schools with MMR vaccination rates below 90 percent. That data was from the 2012-2013 school year.

Update 2:20 p.m. Feb. 4, 2015 The pie chart in this post was updated to reflect the most recent available data.