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Some Vermont Lawmakers Reconsider Vaccine Philosophical Exemption

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Three years after a bruising debate over Vermont's laws on childhood immunizations, some lawmakers are considering revisiting the issue in light of national news about a measles outbreak.

A Senate-passed vaccination bill in 2012 was significantly scaled back in the House after critics called it an assault on parents' right to choose whether to have their children vaccinated.
In the end, Vermont maintained its philosophical exemptions for parents who decide against vaccinations, but stepped up reporting requirements by parents and schools and public education efforts by the state Health Department.
Now, House members Barbara Rachelson and Leigh Dakin and Senator Kevin Mullin are considering submitting legislation to tighten the statute in light of the recent national focus on measles cases.
Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice President Jennifer Stella says she has heard that some legislators may try to eliminate the philosophical exemption.  “What we’re really advocating for here is to keep the fundamental ethical principle in medicine of the right to informed consent. Which basically, in practicality with current vaccination laws, translates into the ability to exercise a vaccine exemption for Vermont parents. We have both the right to exercise religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions. Which is basically a right to say no to a pharmaceutical product for our children.”

Stella says there are a number of reasons parents decide to use the philosophical exemption, but believes most who opt out have often seen bad reactions in their children.  “Since there is no liability for these products within the medical industry the risks and the reactions are basically truncated and ignored. So parents who have seen the reaction and then are told you need to go on with the program and get your child a second shot, third shot, fourth, fifth, sixth, depends on which vaccine you’re speaking about, parents may say I don’t want to go any further. Parents who use these exemptions are really feeling like they’re protecting their children against further harm from these pharmaceutical products. Because at the end of the day nobody has any liability.”

American Academy of Pediatrics Vermont Chapter Executive Director Stephanie Winters says they believe the philosophical exemption is harmful to the population, especially children. She is hopeful legislators will revisit and change the law.  “All parents want to do what’s best for their children and obviously love and care and think that they’re doing the right thing.  But we have to think of the other children in the community. The efficacy and safety of vaccines has been proven over generations of time. The biggest misconception is that it causes other diseases such as autism. I think there’s a big misconception about ingredients in vaccinations and what those ingredients actually are and how they affect people.”

Winters had hoped for a different outcome in 2012.  “The real goal is to protect Vermont’s kids. Unfortunately we’re having a measles outbreak and that is something that certainly lends to our cause.  But it’s not the reason that there’s legislation being introduced this year. It was already being thought about. I’m hopeful that we can educate the public and more parents. Whether legislation goes through, I hope it will. But I think it’s certainly gotten the attention of some legislators.”

Vermont requires a vaccination rate of 90 percent in schools. If that benchmark isn’t reached, penalties are imposed if there is a disease outbreak.
The head of the Vermont Principals Association said they and other school organizations are eager to see what legislation will be filed and will comment after it is introduced.
Calls to legislators who said they plan to sponsor legislation to revise Vermont immunization laws were not returned in time for broadcast.

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