New state data out last month show the vaccination rate for kindergartners is on the rise in Vermont. But so is the number of parents claiming religious exemptions to getting their kids vaccinated. That's as the state is phasing out another exemption that let parents skip vaccinating their kids for philosophical reasons.
The latest state numbers show 89.7 percent of Vermont kindergartners had their vaccinations this past school year. That's up 2 percentage points from the year before.
Christine Finley, the immunization program manager with the Vermont Health Department, attributes the increase to several factors.
“The first is that parents' awareness of the importance of vaccines and the requirements for school, I believe, has increased,” Finley says. “The second is … our primary care providers … are making strong vaccine recommendations to parents.”
Finley also credits Vermont’s access to vaccines – “We have a high percent of kids that are insured, and through the universal program at the health department, we make vaccines available to providers at no cost for all children” – and the work schools are doing to communicate and follow-up with parents.
“I really think it's the coordinated effort,” Finley says.
How can the state raise the vaccinate rate even higher, to the other 10.3 percent of kids out there?
Finley says sometimes children are missing just one vaccine, or may have fallen behind. And sometimes it’s a matter of “misinformation about one vaccine,” she says.
“People might be concerned … or parents might think something's not necessary anymore,” she says. “So it's really addressing any misperceptions that are out there. And then really what's been important is the excellent follow-up the schools have been doing to make sure children that are provisionally admitted are up to date.”
The philosophical exemption, which lets parents skip vaccinations for their kids if they have a philosophical objection to them, is going away next month per a new state law. The data show the number of philosophical exemptions claimed this past year did decrease. But the number of religious exemptions to vaccinations have increased.
So are the people who claimed philosophical objections in the past just going to start claiming religious exemptions in the future?
“What I think we're going to see is an increase in immunization rates, although [it's] probably likely that there will be some bump in the number of religious exemptions,” Finley says. But, she says, the state “does not do anything” to check or confirm parents’ religious exemptions.
“A parent may submit a religious exemption to the school – in fact, we don't claim them, they stay at the school,” she says. “And some states make people identify specifically why they want an exemption to look at the sincerity and how genuine it is. And research has shown that that's really not a very effective way to overall increase immunization rates, so Vermont will not be doing that.”
When it comes to religious exemptions in Vermont, only a small number of kids are exempted: about 60 kids this past school year out of about 6,400 kindergartners. But there are still parents who want the option not to vaccinate their children, and argue the matter should be one of parental choice.
“Science has demonstrated the effectiveness of vaccines and reducing disease for every single disease that we are that we're using out there,” Finley says in response to this sentiment. “I think my concern is that if when you're not vaccinating, you're relying on the immunity that's created in the community, because all the other parents have vaccinated. And so as long as we have high vaccination rates, their children may be protected. But as the outbreaks across the country have shown – we're seeing small outbreaks of measles in different places now, and other issues – is that you don't know when you're going to be exposed to anything.”
Finley continues: “It's a global society, and diseases such as measles are highly contagious, and so your child may be at risk and may bring that into a school. And there are children that can't be vaccinated because they're on chemotherapy for cancer or they have some other immune deficiency.”
Those children, Finley says, may be at risk as well.