Colorado health organizations recommend making it harder to opt-out of vaccinations
Ryan Summerlin January 12, 2014
State health organizations are taking a shot at altering the requirements for how parents can exempt a child from required immunizations.
There are currently 240 students in Summit School District with vaccine exemptions for medical, religious or personal reasons: 139 at the elementary level, 49 at the middle school and 52 at the high school. In total, 7.6 percent of the district population does not have one or more of the state-required immunizations. The district does not track exemptions year to year, but rather, keeps records starting from whenever a student enters the district. The district is required to send out a letter every year that explains what vaccines are required and which ones are recommended.
Linda Doran, a nurse who has spent the last six years in Summit School District, said the exemptions in Summit schools are mostly personal. However, she said the number of exemptions have not fluctuated drastically.
“I haven’t noticed a large increase or change in the time I’ve been here,” she said. “We’ve been at a pretty stagnant level.”
Vaccines can protect children younger than 2 years old from 14 diseases, including measles, chicken pox, measles, mumps and more. Some diseases require several doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For example, the CDC recommends five doses of the vaccine for whooping cough for children under 6, with booster shots throughout life, but more than 1,000 cases of the disease were reported in 2013 in Colorado. An August 2013, a CDC report showed Colorado had the lowest median vaccine rate in the U.S., with almost 17 percent of kindergartners unvaccinated.
Stephanie Wasserman is the executive director of Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition, a group which helped produce a recent report on immunization exemptions in the state, led by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The report outlines recommendations for making it harder to list a personal belief exemption for a vaccination. The group’s goal, Wasserman said, is to mobilize partners and families to advance children’s health through immunizations.
Current Colorado policy requires only a parent’s signature to claim a personal, medical or religious exemption — 93 percent of exemptions are personal belief claims, according to the report. That means more than 4 percent of kindergartners start school without required immunizations, Wasserman said.
“We have known Colorado has a growing issue related to more parents that are choosing to delay required immunizations, or actually exempting their children,” she said. “There is a growing problem of increasing rates of vaccine-preventable diseases.”
Colorado is one of only 18 states that allow families to exempt for personal reasons, and is one of the most lenient, Wasserman said. The first recommendation from the study is about informed refusal, making sure parents are making an educated choice, she said. It would require parents to receive more vaccine education, through a health care provider or online module. States such as Oregon, Washington and California implemented similar online training parents must take.
“So, when they are exempting, they would be doing it in a very informed way,” Wasserman said. “It would be a very strongly held personal belief, not doing it out of convenience or incorrect information.”
However, the National Vaccine Information Center, a nonprofit organization concerned about the potential side effects of vaccines, says the number of exemptions actually fell last year.
The second recommendation of the study is to have more public disclosure, so parents can know the rates of immunizations at schools and make informed selections about where to send their children. Summit School District spokesperson Julie McCluskie said right now, there is no way of looking at rates of immunizations in other districts in the state, so it’s hard to know where the district falls comparatively.
“The data says that personal belief exemptions are the primary reasons in Colorado,” Wasserman said. “We really want to launch an effort to look closely at the immunization landscapes in Colorado, and we hope to move forward with these changes.”