As the Great Disneyland Measles Outbreak continues to reverberate, attention is rightly turning to Vermont’s permissive rules on opting out of childhood vaccinations. The state allows parents to claim religious, medical, or philosophical grounds for refusing vaccinations; the vast majority of exemptions, according to the state Health Department, are in the undefined “philosophical” category.
Most of these are not philosophical at all; they are the result of anti-vaccine propaganda fomented by the likes of Jenny McCarthy and a disgraced former doctor. Their numbers in Vermont are growing, and getting close to the point where “herd immunity” will no longer be effective, and long-banished disease can make a comeback.
This is exactly the problem that caused the Disneyland outbreak, and it’s only a matter of time before it happens here. One brave lawmaker has stepped up to the plate; Sen. Kevin Mullin has proposed a bill to eliminate the philosophical exemption. He also did so in 2012; the Senate passed the bill, but the House backed away like a frightened child when the anti-vaxxers stormed their gilded corridors.
There seems to be little appetite for a repeat of that debate, in spite of the growing risk. Governor Shumlin, who strongly endorses vaccination, wants no part of another exemption debate, according to spokesman Scott Coriell:
The Governor believes that every child in Vermont should be vaccinated against deadly diseases, not only to protect them but also to protect others. …When it comes to the question of forcing those parents who refuse to follow common sense to do so, the legislature had that debate in 2012 and a bipartisan majority in the legislature passed a bill that requires enhanced education for parents and reporting on vaccination rates.
…While the Governor believes there is no excuse to forgo vaccinations, he thinks we need to be extremely careful about passing laws that put the state in the position of making decisions for children without parental consent.
That sounds almost exactly like the statement that just got New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in hot water:
“All I can say is we vaccinated ours,” Christie said, while touring a biomedical research facility in Cambridge, England, which makes vaccines.
The New Jersey governor added that “parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.”
You tell me the difference between Shumlin and Christie. There isn’t any.
And hey, here’s a little tidbit that might make some of our leaders think twice about their timidity: they’re making a daily commute right into the heart of a potential measles vector. According to the latest Health Department figures, kindergartners at Montpelier’s Union Elementary School have a Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccination rate of only 88.7%. The standard for “herd immunity” is 90%.
The Governor and his fellow anti-vaxx coddlers might want to consider wearing facemasks to Montpelier, especially those with some kind of suppressed immunity.
Now, the anti-vaxxers are framing this the same way Shumlin is: as a matter of parental choice.
Problem: this is a matter of choice the same way smoking in enclosed spaces or wearing your seat belt is a matter of choice. On some issues, the public interest trumps individual rights. When parents opt out of vaccination, they are depending on the rest of us to supply their kids with herd immunity. They also pose a direct health threat to children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, and to anyone with a suppressed immune system.
Vermont is trending in the wrong direction on vaccinations. We are needlessly endangering some of our more vulnerable residents and the general public health. But I guess it will take an actual outbreak before our lawmakers put on their grown-up pants and do the right thing.