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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Spencer Rendahl: Vaccine Choices

I recently talked to a mother who decided not to vaccinate her child. She said she considered vaccines unnecessary and potentially dangerous. News reports show that this mother is not alone: a growing number of parents have been telling pediatricians not to vaccinate their kids against illnesses like whooping cough and measles.

Vaccines are voluntary, but public schools require them for enrollment. Schools allow kids with compromised immune systems from things like cancer treatment to get medical exemptions.

But every state, except Mississippi and West Virginia, also permits non-medical exemptions. New Hampshire, like Massachusetts, allows religious exemptions for kids entering public school without vaccinations. Vermont and Maine – along with blue states like California and red states like Arkansas – allow exemptions based both on religious and personal beliefs or philosophy.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, Vermont had the highest opt-out rate for kindergartners in New England at more than five percent for the 2012 and 2013 school years. Maine came in second. New Hampshire and Massachusetts had much lower opt-out rates.

Recently, vaccination rates in some of the toniest neighborhoods in Los Angeles made national news for being lower than Southern Sudan. In some LA schools, 60 to 70 percent of parents have filed personal belief exemptions.

The reason for these personal belief exemptions can range from fears that vaccines cause autism, contain harmful chemicals, and prove less effective than immunity gained from community exposure. All of these claims have been largely scientifically disproven.

Regardless, exemption rates have grown, and they have come at a cost. Nineteenth century diseases like measles, mumps, and whooping cough have made a strong come-back in the past few years. Last year, the United States reportedly had more than 10 times the number of whooping cough cases than in the 1980s.

People with compromised immune systems can’t be vaccinated, so they depend on the immunization of those around them for protection. Those who opt out of vaccination for non-medical reasons are also similarly protected.

But public health experts say that a community is only protected when 94 percent of the population is vaccinated. If that percentage drops, the system breaks down - with serious consequences. According to the CDC, half of infants that contract whooping cough require hospitalization, and some die. According to the World Health Organization, measles is one of the leading causes of death in young children worldwide. In all, two million children reportedly die every year from illnesses that could be prevented with vaccines.

Both of my children were hospitalized after their births with life threatening infections. I didn’t want us to return to the hospital if we could avoid it, so I followed our pediatrician’s advice and gave my kids the standard series of vaccines.

Some illnesses, like the Ebola virus, have no proven prevention or cure, so to me it seems eminently sensible to take advantage of vaccines that do exist. And they’re right there in the doctor’s office, just waiting to be used.