Legislature Reconsiders Vaccination Law

By Annie Grayer

In light of a recent measles outbreak, which originated at Disneyland in December and has since grown to 102 cases in 14 states, the debate on child-vaccination laws in Vermont has been reignited.

According to America’s Health Rankings, which is funded by the United Health Foundation, Vermont is ranked 22nd nationwide for its child-vaccination laws.  The Boston Globe reports that this is one of the weakest standings in New England.

Since 1979, parents who do not want to vaccinate their children can check a box on a state form that says they have a philosophical objection to the vaccination. Based on research reported by Valley News, 400 kindergartners statewide, or 6.1 percent of the population, used this philosophical exemption to avoid the measles vaccine. In August 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) that 21 public schools in the state had vaccination rates below 90 percent. In addition, the CDC reported in a separate report in October 2014 that only 91.2 percent of Vermont kindergartners had a measles vaccination.

In 2012, State Sen. Kevin Mullin, (R) Rutland, introduced a bill that would eliminate the philosophical exemption to vaccines. Opposed by various senators and Gov. Peter Shumlin, Sen. Mullin’s efforts were championed in the Senate, but defeated in the House. Instead of the elimination of the philosophical exemption, the bill resulted in a compromise, requiring a detailed reporting of vaccination rates from each school district.

This past week, State Sen. Kevin Mullin, the lead sponsor of the 2012 legislation, made a motion to reintroduce the 2012 bill based on his belief that the current school reporting law does not go far enough in response to the current outbreak.

Sen. Mullin comments, “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.”

At a Statehouse news conference last Thursday, pediatrician Lou DiNicola urged Vermont parents to vaccinate their children, and expressed his support for the reintroduction of the bill.

“What we’re dealing with is misinformation,” DiNicola said as to why he feels parents oppose vaccinations.  Furthermore, DiNicola disapproves of the state’s current regulations. “The law,” DiNicola explained, “reinforced that it’s okay to make this decision not to vaccinate your child based on whatever you find out on the Internet.”

In contrast, Jennifer Stella, head of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice, explains that at its core, this issue is about fighting for 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?”

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s skepticism towards the removal of the philosophical exemption from the bill bolsters Stella’s point of view. Shumlin not only expresses the need to create a distinction between state and individual rights, but also questions whether the vaccination law falls under the state’s jurisdiction.

“There’s just no doubt that it makes really common sense to vaccinate your kids against horrible diseases that used to take our ancestors from us and that we’ve now got the medical capacity to avoid,” Shumlin said. The governor still believes, however, that “we have to find the balance between what we believe and individual liberties.”

In response to sentiments felt by Stella and Gov. Shumlin, Sen. Kevin Mullin disregards the notion that this issue is about parent’s fighting for their individual freedoms, and instead demands that it be approached as a health concern.

“This isn’t about eliminating choice. It’s about protecting all Vermonters,” Sen. Mullin said.

Josh Allen, a father of four, who sends his children to Bradford Elementary school, echoes Sen. Mullin’s sentiments about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. “They’re endangering other people by not doing it,” Allen said.

Christine Finley, Immunization Program director for the Vermont Department of Health, introduces the element of fear as responsible for this contentious debate.

“I think we need to understand where the fear is coming from,” Finley said, “and where the concern is coming from, and try to address that.”
In light of Finley’s remarks, the cautious mentality of House Speaker Shap Smith, (D) Morristown, can be put into context.

“I really think that before we go into what is going to be a really difficult debate, based on past experience,” Smith said, “we need to understand how the education effort is working.”

The vaccination debate raises questions about how the state should manage individual rights and public health concerns. Both sides of the debate are fueling up to argue over how each sphere intertwines and diverges. Although the success of State Sen. Kevin Mullin’s bill remains uncertain, recent events have made it clear that vaccination law is contentious in Vermont.