Vermont pushes to end philosophical exemption to vaccines

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A group of Vermont lawmakers and health professionals said Thursday they would try again to eliminate the philosophical exemption parents can use to avoid having their children vaccinated.

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, championed a Senate-passed bill in 2012 to eliminate the exemption, but as it moved to the House a coalition of parents' rights advocates and vaccine skeptics rose up to get it significantly scaled back.

Mullin said the recent national measles outbreak had helped persuade him to try again.

"Unfortunately, too many Vermonters choose not to immunize their children, putting the rest of the population at risk," he said. "The recent outbreak in 14 states illustrates that this is a significant health concern. Vaccines prevent life-threatening diseases. This isn't about eliminating choice. It's about protecting all Vermonters."

Mullin was joined at a news conference by Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, two pediatric physicians, an official with the state March of Dimes affiliate and a vice president of a statewide hospitals group in saying they would push the legislation.

Jill Mazza Olson of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems said afterward that pro-vaccine forces appear to be better organized this year than they were when the grassroots coalition of vaccine critics descended on the Statehouse in 2012.

In the 2012-13 school year, 5.46 percent of Vermont's kindergarteners were children whose parents did not get them fully vaccinated, according to the state Health Department. The exemption rate rose to 6.1 percent the following school year.

Mullin said, "The states that have been the most successful (in reducing those rates) were the ones that eliminated the philosophical exemption."

After the news conference, Jennifer Stella, president of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice, held an impromptu session with reporters in a Statehouse hallway in which she said she remains convinced that parents should have the choice whether to vaccinate their children.

"While folks say this is not an issue of parental rights, we all must remember that this is about pharmaceutical products, medical procedures that require informed consent" by patients or their parents, she said. She said vaccine manufacturers are legally exempt from liability, so parents have no recourse if something goes wrong.

"This is an issue of parental rights. Parents need to be the ultimate decision-makers," she said.

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