Health Commissioner: Shumlin now 'neutral' on vaccines

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has shifted from opposed to neutral on the idea of ending the exemption that allows some parents to opt out of having their children vaccinated, the state Health Commissioner said Thursday.

"I think the governor's position is that he's neutral; he understands that the Legislature decided to take this up. And we'll support whatever comes out of this Legislature," said Dr. Harry Chen, the commissioner who is Shumlin's chief adviser on health and medicine.

That would mark a change from when the Legislature took up the issue in 2012, when a bill to kill the philosophical exemption passed the Senate but died in the House after the governor spoke out opposing it.

"I do not believe that in the end the government should dictate to parents what inoculations their kids have to get," Shumlin said in 2012.

Chen said Thursday his boss "has changed from two years ago. I'll take some credit for that."

The comments came after the health commissioner, a former legislator and emergency room physician, spoke out forcefully in favor of ending the exemption in a meeting of the House Health Care Committee.

"As a doctor of 35 years, as a parent, as a person old enough to have seen the horrible effects of these diseases," Chen said he supports removing the philosophical exemption and leaving only much less frequently used medical and religious exemptions as ways parents can keep their children from being immunized.

"The science is clear: Vaccines are safe and effective, but as you know, nothing is 100 percent," he added.

While making known he supported ending the philosophical exemption early in the 2012 session, Chen grew more muted as the weeks passed, as Shumlin aired his views and a less ambitious bill emerged from the House. It imposed new reporting requirements on parents, schools and the Health Department, including public identification of schools' vaccination rates.

"The governor and I agreed that was a place of reasonable compromise in terms of making some progress in implementing the law," the commissioner said Thursday. He added that he would have liked more time before revising the issue, to see how well the 2012 changes worked. "I really had no intention of bringing this up to go through this again."

On Thursday, Chen told the committee, "I continue to support removing the philosophical exemption, just as I did in 2012."

Thursday was the third day of hearings before the House committee. Tuesday and Wednesday saw impassioned testimony ranging from that of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who warned of adverse effects from some vaccines and accused government agencies regulating them of corruption; to a Burlington doctor who said her young daughter suffers from childhood leukemia and a weakened immune system and could die if exposed to unvaccinated children.

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