By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Sponsors of a bill that would have made it tougher for parents to skip vaccines had to gut a key part of their bill on Wednesday after they couldn’t muster enough support in the Senate — including the endorsement of a veteran public health nurse.
The immunization measure, House Bill 14-1288, no longer requires parents to get their provider’s signature or take an online class to show they understand the risks if they want to opt out of vaccines.
The bill will require all schools and day care centers to report vaccination rates so parents with vulnerable children like cancer patients can decide if they want to allow them to attend schools with high rates of unvaccinated children.
Only 18 states, including Colorado, allow vaccine exemptions based on personal beliefs, and as a result, Colorado ranked sixth worst in the nation last year for non-vaccinated kindergarteners in public schools, according to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
The immunization measure had passed the House and the weakened version passed out of the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee Wednesday on a 3-to-2 party-line vote.
Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, who is a physician and a sponsor of the bill, said she was disappointed to have to change the bill, but said she had no choice because she didn’t have enough votes in the full Senate.
Vaccine opponents fought hard against the bill.
“It’s a vocal, well-educated and articulate minority. They came out in droves and their voices were heard,” Aguilar said.
She said the school reporting will help shine a light on an important public health issue.
“This is a good start. I feel like we need to push back a bit (against vaccine opponents). There are significant public health benefits of vaccinations,” Aguilar said.
As a physician, Aguilar said she’s frustrated that the latest scientific evidence showing vaccines are safe and save lives has not persuaded some skeptics or her colleagues.
“I don’t think there’s adequate respect for scientific data and research in the legislature. (In medicine) everything is based on research and data and on risks and benefits. That’s not the way the legislature works.”
Among those who Aguilar could not convince was fellow Democrat, Sen. Jeanne Nicholson of Central City. Nicholson’s lack of support for the bill was a surprise since she had spent three decades as a public health nurse and routinely gave vaccines to babies.
Nicholson told Health News Colorado earlier this week that she likes the school reporting part of the bill.
But she didn’t like the attempt to close a so-called “convenience loophole.” The sponsors including Aguilar in the Senate and Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, wanted to make it harder for parents to skip vaccines than to get them. Under current law, parents can simply sign an exemption form saying they don’t want vaccines for personal or religious reasons.
A poll of 1,350 voters that former Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, had a professional polling firm conduct in late March as part of his master’s thesis found that Coloradans in eight legislative districts overwhelmingly supported making it tougher to opt out of vaccines. Of those surveyed, 65 percent supported making it tougher to opt out, 25 percent opposed the bill and 10 percent were undecided. Tupa has launched the Citizen Survey Project to explore whether lawmakers base their votes on constituents’ views. (Click here to see the full survey results.)
Nicholson said she didn’t like the idea of forcing parents to get a doctor’s signature.
“Physicians can’t just sign (the form),” Nicholson said. “They have to share the risks and benefits.
“That part you would think as a public health nurse, I would like, but I don’t,” she said.
Nicholson said the point of the bill was to get more kids immunized, but she didn’t think it would work.
“Many of these parents (who are opting out) think they’re very well informed,” Nicholson said.
She doubted the original bill would have swayed them. She also said she thinks some parents who are claiming exemptions simply can’t find their immunization records. She thinks better records at the state level could help families track their immunization records and would show Colorado has higher immunization rates.
But during heated testimony in the House — where lawmakers first approved the bill — vaccine opponents said they wanted the government to stay out of their parental decisions and many feared a slippery slope. Several said that if lawmakers succeeded in passing this bill, the next step would be requiring all families to immunize their children.
Despite overwhelming evidence that vaccines do not cause autism, several opponents of the bill nonetheless talked about their concerns that vaccines harm children.
Nicholson said she’s convinced that scientific evidence doesn’t support those claims and said vaccines save lives.
“Absolutely. There’s no question. I believe that all children should be fully immunized by age 2. Unless you have medical or religious reasons not to immunize your child, I believe that immunizations are the best. This is one of the public health success stories of the 20th century. They have saved a tremendous number of lives,” Nicholson said.
In her mountainous district, Nicholson said there are plenty of old cemeteries where headstones mark graves for infants who died of diseases that vaccines can now be prevented.
“The headstones will say that the baby died of diphtheria or scarlet fever. What a horrible heartbreak for those parents,” Nicholson said.
“I absolutely think immunizations are wonderful. I have given immunizations. I think they are the right thing to do,” said Nicholson. “But I have known families in my community who don’t want to immunize their children and are nervous. I don’t think a web-based (tutorial) is going to work.”
Instead, she thinks public health workers need to do a better job of listening to vaccine opponents.
“There’s a certain amount of emotion. It’s not just the science. They ask, ‘why would I hurt my children?’ ” Nicholson said. “They don’t remember the diseases. They’re saying to me, ‘I’m emotionally upset about this.’ It’s a much more complex issue.”
If the weakened vaccine bill survives in the full Senate, Gov. John Hickenlooper has indicated he’s likely to support it. While Hickenlooper hasn’t endorsed the precise language in the bill, he supports vaccines in general after his son endured a scary case of whooping cough as an infant before he was fully immunized.
“We’re looking at every way we can to get more parents (to vaccinate their children) and encourage them to get the full package of immunizations,” Hickenlooper said during a March press conference. (Click here to read Governor supports immunizations as bill advances.)
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said only 18 states allow vaccine exemptions. That was incorrect. Only 18 states, including Colorado, allow vaccine exemptions based on personal beliefs.