• Fighting back against whooping cough
    December 23,2012
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    Jeb Wallace-BrodEur / Staff Photo

    Dr. Harry Chen, state health commissioner, immunizes a young Vermonter last week in Barre. Vermont ranks second in the nation in terms of parents refusing to have their children vaccinated before attending school.
    As 2012 comes to a close, Vermont is setting a record, but not one to be proud of. Weíve had more cases here of whooping cough than ever before: more than 522 and still climbing.

    Sadly, thatís the sixth-highest rate of incidence in the country, which is seeing an epidemic of a preventable, and possibly fatal, disease. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, Vermont sadly has a much higher rate of whooping cough incidents than the national average.

    How did we get here? And how did families across the nation get here? For the past year, weíve talked a lot about the topic of vaccines, as we should. When it comes to the health and safety of our children and the public at large, there is possibly no greater issue.

    Thatís why we must continue to fight this urgent situation. According to a poll conducted by media outlets earlier this year, the majority of Vermonters want immunizations to be mandatory for children to attend school; more than 56 percent of respondents support it. But we canít seem to get there.

    Vermont, like a few other states across the nation with high rates of people opting out of getting their children vaccinated for school, has begun to address this issue. What we did in the Legislature last year was a good first step, but we need to do more.

    Vermont is one of 20 states that allow parents to opt out of having their children vaccinated for school for reasons of personal belief. We are one of just seven states that makes it unduly easy in that parents just have to sign a form. Vermont is also second in the nation when it comes to parents utilizing that personal belief exemption, second only to Washington state.

    Washington state also took steps to increase its immunization rate by decreasing the number of parents who exempt their children from being vaccinated, and went further than Vermont. They are also reaping the benefits. The rate of kindergartners coming to school without the required vaccines in Washington more than doubled between 1998 and 2008, topping out at 7.6 percent of those students. Since the new law passed, that opt-out rate has fallen by a quarter.

    A few months ago, like Washington, California passed a law requiring parents to seek a doctorís consultation before exempting their children from being immunized and attending school. As legislators, we have an obligation to represent the interests of our constituents. We also have an obligation to protect all Vermonters.

    Itís a balancing act, except when it comes to a matter of the public health of our communities. That comes first. And in order to protect Vermonters, we need to create whatís known as herd immunity ó more than 90 percent of the population needs to be fully vaccinated in order to protect those who canít for medical reasons. Unfortunately, our numbers are below that threshold and falling.

    Immunization rates among incoming kindergartners in Vermont have dropped from 93 percent in 2006 to 83 percent today, according to the Vermont Department of Health. Vermont has fallen from one of the states with the highest rates of immunization to one of the lowest.

    We are seeing firsthand what happens when parents donít immunize their children. Itís a danger not only to the child, but also to the community at large. Across the country there have been more cases of whooping cough this year than at any time since 1959. A disease thatís preventable has come raging back in our own backyard.

    Itís time to dispel any myths that vaccines are dangerous. The scientific evidence has shown, over and over again, that vaccines are not only safe, but also necessary in eliminating possibly fatal diseases. We can ó and we must ó work together to find a solution that protects our children and our communities, but makes certain a parent and their childís doctor make decisions together.

    When it comes to health care, thatís the only way that works.

    Kevin Mullin is a Republican senator from Rutland County.
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