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Despite vaccine scare, Vermont should protect public health

What do climate change and childhood vaccinations have in common? The scientific consensus supporting action on both fronts is under attack — but from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Over the last two decades, the number of parents who decline to vaccinate their children has skyrocketed. The movement against vaccinations has been fueled by a fraudulent and long-discredited study purporting to link the shots to autism (the study’s main author has since lost his medical license), and embraced as a trendy part of an all-natural upbringing. Seven percent of kids in Marin County, Calif., don’t have state-mandated vaccinations when they enroll in school. In Ashland, Ore., the rate reached about 30 percent. In Washington State, the percentage of kindergartners with a vaccine exemption declined slightly last school year, but is still more than double the rate in 1998.


Now, in both California and Vermont, where the number of incoming kindergartners with vaccinations plunged from 93 percent in 2005 to 83 percent in 2010, lawmakers are considering narrowing the rules that allow parents to claim philosophical objections to having their kids immunized in order to attend school. (Medical exemptions and religious exemptions would remain.) Lawmakers would be wise to take action.

The scientific evidence is clear: Unless there’s a specific medical justification, withholding vaccines from kids puts them at needless risk, and endangers the community as a whole by making deadly outbreaks more likely to take hold.

Indeed, there are more and more reports of preventable diseases like mumps, measles, and whooping cough that had once virtually disappeared from the United States. In California, where the number of vaccine opt-outs jumped 50 percent since 1991, whooping cough cases exceeded 9,000 in 2010, a level unseen since the 1940s; 10 people died in an outbreak that year. Vermont, too, has seen an increase in whooping cough cases — from 18 in 2010 to 94 last year and 102 so far this year. The Vermont Medical Society , which supports restrictions on opt-outs, fears those numbers are just a foretaste of what’s to come if the state’s vaccination rates keep falling.


The Vermont Senate passed legislation in March narrowing the exemption, but the House’s weaker bill would leave it intact, substituting a public education campaign. The bills are now before a conference committee; the Senate’s tougher approach ought to prevail.

Some supporters of keeping Vermont’s exemption have said that it’s their own business how they raise their kids. But the proposal doesn’t actually require them to get shots for their children. They only need get the shots against potentially deadly diseases like measles and whooping cough to send kids to school or day care, where they’ll be around others.

And that’s the key distinction. Not all children are old enough or healthy enough to receive vaccinations. To stay healthy, they rely on the children around them having vaccinations to prevent fatal outbreaks from starting in the first place.

Some observers in Vermont have noted that older members of the legislature, who can remember the misery of polio outbreaks, are more likely to support requiring vaccinations. For many young parents, on the other hand, the abstract threat of measles doesn’t loom nearly as threatening as far-fetched rumors spread online.

When children go to school without shots, it creates unacceptable risks to others. It may be an inconvenient truth for vaccine skeptics, but states need to act against a troubling trend.