By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Mobilizing moms may be the secret to boosting Colorado’s dismal immunization rates.
Anti-vaccine activists long have been well organized and aggressively share their concerns about vaccines, despite an outcry from scientists that research does not support those fears.
Now public health advocates who support immunizations are trying to light a fire under ambivalent parents by hitting them where they hang out: at their kids’ schools.
A bill making its way through Colorado’s legislature would make it tougher for parents to exempt their children from the immunizations that are required before children can attend schools. Under the current system, parents can simply sign a personal belief exemption. Advocates for tougher rules call that a “convenience loophole.”
House Bill 14-1288 would require those who want to refuse vaccines to meet with their child’s doctor and get an OK, or complete an online class showing they understand that skipping vaccines can be a dangerous or deadly choice. Vaccine advocates want refusing vaccines to be the tougher choice, not the path of least resistance.
The bill also would allow parents to learn whether their child’s school has high or low vaccination rates. Borrowing tactics from Mothers Against Drug Driving, pro-immunization advocates are trying to underscore the dangers that unvaccinated children pose to the rest of the population. A family’s personal choice not to vaccinate their child could expose other people who can’t get vaccines to dangerous diseases that could kill them. Those people include infants, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Advocates say when it comes to immunizations, personal choice clashes with public safety.
“This is a child protection issue of the greatest and gravest concern,” Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, sponsor of the measure, said in an interview with Health News Colorado.
“We’re seeing daily and weekly outbreaks from whooping cough and vaccine-preventable diseases. This is affecting our young children and their learning environments,” he said. “We’re trying to close the ‘convenience loophole.’ When it’s easier to sign a form than it is to vaccinate your child, then that is an issue we need to be cognizant of.”
Pabon said parents who work hard to keep their kids healthy and safe have a right to know if their school or daycare center has high or low vaccination rates.
“It’s affirmative transparency. Right now, you have no idea. The first time you find out (that kids aren’t vaccinated) is when they send a letter home saying a child in the classroom has been diagnosed with a preventable disease. By then it’s too late.”
Diseases like whooping cough, which is also called pertussis, are making a comeback. And advocates for the bill say Colorado has the sixth-highest exemption rate in the country with 4.3 percent of parents exempting their children from vaccines in the 2012-13 school year.
Parents of young children have become intensely focused on how their schools are doing and health officials hope parents will soon be evaluating schools based on vaccination rates as well as test scores.
After a marathon hearing that lasted late into the evening last Thursday, members of the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee passed the measure by a vote of 9 to 2. The full House is slated to debate the bill on Friday.
At the committee hearing, dozens of vaccine opponents flooded the Capitol, many with infants and toddlers in tow. Most made it clear that they are very well informed on immunizations and don’t need the State of Colorado telling them to consult with their doctors or take an online class that they expect will be one-sided. Many view Pabon’s bill as an attempt to erode their parental rights and a slippery slope toward forcing all Colorado parents to vaccinate their children.
Mary Hendrick of Denver has two grown children whom she decided not to vaccinate 24 years ago. Hendrick says she suffered side effects from a vaccine she received in first-grade back in 1963. She said she was totally healthy, then became severely allergic to eggs. Her pediatrician at the time told her mother that he feared vaccines were to blame.
“This is the first step in eradicating the philosophical exemption,” Hendrick said.
She said babies today have to get far too many vaccines and that some of the diseases were already in decline before the U.S. started routinely requiring vaccines.
“This bill essentially is the first step in removing our rights as parents to make an informed, educated decision regarding a medical procedure that carries known risks.”
Some of the most compelling testimony at the Capitol came from parents who say their children have been harmed or severely disabled because of vaccines.
Ronnie Prine said his son, Eric, was a normal 6-month-old when a vaccine he received in Mississippi caused severe seizures. Eric Prine is now 22 and severely disabled. Prine brought photos of his son to share with lawmakers.
“We didn’t know we had a choice. We were told that vaccines were safe,” Prine said. “I held him down so he could get his vaccines. The nurse never told us he could have brain damage.
“That was in 1991. We did what the doctor said, but we took him home that evening and noticed a difference right away.”
Prine said the personal belief exemption is absolutely critical to him. He and his wife refused vaccines for Eric’s younger sister, who is now 14.
“If I had had the chance to say no then, I would have said no. I lost everything.”
Advocates for immunizations carefully crafted their message as well. They brought a parade of moms who talked about their commitment to feeding their children organic food and doing everything they can to keep them safe. The moms testified that giving the full slate of recommended vaccines is the best way to protect children.
Sundari Kraft is a pro-vaccination mom who launched a website called Vaccinate for Healthy Schools.
“The purpose is to mobilize parents,” said Kraft who has a 2-year-old daughter and is hoping to have a second. “I write and teach about sustainability and gardening. I travel in a lot of natural parenting circles. I was concerned about the sentiment about vaccines.
She said the more she learned about Colorado’s poor vaccination rates, the more concerned she became.
“These high rates of vaccine exemptions put other children like my daughter at risk. Newborns are incredibly vulnerable,” she said. “We can do all of these things to try to be healthy and eat vegetables and grow organic food.”
But, children can still get diseases that were nearly eradicated like pertussis and measles.
Kraft thinks more and more parents are beginning to see the importance of vaccines.
“I’m beginning to see the tide turning,” she said. “We need to continue to be proactive. In the past the public health community just relied on the fact that science is on the side of vaccinating. That was considered to be enough.
“Now we know it’s not enough to just vaccinate your own children. We need to speak up about this.”