By Rachel Goff
As measles spreads across the nation, earlier this month Vermont legislators re-examined the state's opt-out policy, which allows parents to choose not to vaccinate their children for philosophical reasons.
Before entering kindergarten, children are required to have five vaccinations to protect them from measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, hepatitis B and varicella. According to the annual report from the Vermont Department of Health for the 2013-2014 academic year, however, only 86 percent of students entering kindergarten in public schools statewide had received all of the required vaccinations.
At 86 percent, Vermont's vaccination rate falls below the 90 percent needed for herd immunity as identified by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and in The Valley, the vaccination rate is even lower.
For the 2013-2014 academic year, 80.5 percent of elementary school students in Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield and Warren had gotten all of their shots. Within The Valley, the vaccination rate varies between the region's four schools, from 69.7 percent of students at Fayston Elementary School and 78 percent of students at Warren Elementary School having received all of the required vaccinations, to 84.9 percent of students at Waitsfield Elementary School and 89.2 percent of students at Moretown Elementary School.
Within The Valley, vaccination rates also vary by vaccine. While 91.1 percent of elementary school students in The Valley had received the vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella, only 85.7 percent had gotten a shot for varicella, more commonly known as chicken pox.
In choosing to opt out of required vaccinations, parents are required to submit an immunization exemption form to the state of Vermont listing which vaccinations their child has not received and whether it was for "religious" or "philosophical" reasons.
Before signing the immunization exemption form, parents must read education information from the Vermont Department of Health as well as acknowledge that "failure to complete the required vaccination schedule increases the risk to my child and others of contracting, carrying or spreading a vaccine-preventable infectious disease," the form reads, and that "there are people with special health needs in schools and child care facilities who are unable to be vaccinated, or who are at heightened risk of contracting a vaccine-preventable communicable disease, and for whom such a disease could be life-threatening."
Last week, the CDC announced that an outbreak of measles that began in December of last year has since spread to 17 states, infecting 121 individuals. While no measles cases have yet to be reported in Vermont, this month lawmakers are looking into tightening state laws requiring vaccinations.
Earlier this legislative session, state Senator Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) introduced a bill that would eliminate immunization exemption for philosophical reasons. Of the five New England states, Vermont and Maine are the only two that allow parents to choose not to vaccinate their children for philosophical or religious reasons. Currently, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island only allow parents to opt out for religious reasons.
Mullin introduced a similar bill to the Vermont Legislature in 2012, but it did not pass, in part due to opposition from Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice. Moving forward, House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) said he wants to understand the impact of the state's current educational efforts around vaccines before deciding whether or not to do away with the state's opt-out policy.