Vermont House votes to end philosophical vaccine exemption

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Reversing an action it took three years ago, the Vermont House voted Tuesday to go along with the Senate's long-standing wish to end the philosophical exemption that allowed some parents not to get their kids fully vaccinated.

The House voted 85-57 to end the exemption and make full immunization a condition of attending school. The vote came after nearly four hours of impassioned debate that pitted concern for improved public health versus maximizing personal choice.

The House version of the bill puts off its effective date until July 1, 2016, to give families and schools time to adopt. That and other small changes will need Senate agreement or to be worked out in a House-Senate conference committee.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin opposed eliminating the exemption when lawmakers considered the issue in 2012. He said last week that he would honor the Legislature's wishes this time around.

Backers of the change, including Democratic Rep. Leigh Dakin, a former school nurse from Chester, said Vermont's rates of immunization could be coming close to the danger line of where there no longer is "herd immunity," a condition in which immunization is widespread enough in a population to keep a disease from gaining a foothold.

She spoke of several areas that have less than an 80 percent immunization rate for some vaccines, and said the Health Care Committee, on which she serves, had heard testimony indicating that "the way to have herd immunity is to have rates above 95 percent."

Figures kept by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that during the 2012-13 school year, 6.1 percent of Vermont children entering kindergarten had not received one or more of the 34 vaccinations the CDC recommends children get by age 6. Vermont requires a smaller number. That was among the highest rates in the country for children considered not fully immunized, and it was up from 5.7 percent in the previous year.

Vermont has been one of about 20 states with a philosophical or personal-choice exemption for vaccines. It still would allow medical and religious exemptions. Forty-eight states — all but Mississippi and West Virginia — offer either philosophical or religious exemptions.

Much of Tuesday's debate centered on a proposed compromise amendment by Rep. Anne Donahue, which ended up being defeated 73-71. The Northfield Republican wanted to maintain the exemption but make it harder to get.

Some lawmakers argued that mandatory vaccines could draw such a negative reaction from parents that immunization rates might go down.

"When you try to make me do something, I get real mulish and tend to go in the opposite direction," said Rep. Mary Hooper, a Montpelier Democrat and opponent of the change.

Those favoring ending the exemption said that vaccines are nowhere near as risky as some opponents claimed, and that unvaccinated children pose risks to children with compromised immune systems due to leukemia and other diseases.

Supporters of maintaining the exemption were defiant.

"This is an outrage in a very serious matter with grave consequences that have not been thoroughly examined," said Jennifer Stella, president of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice.

Parents are "faced now with some very difficult choices. Will they become religious? Will they have to quit their jobs and home-school? Will they have to uproot their families and move out of state? It's a sad day for health choice and medical freedom and for Vermont and all we stand for."

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