Colorado Weighs Making It Harder to Opt Out of Vaccinations

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Feb. 26 2014 7:45 AM

Should Public Schools Have Mandatory Vaccinations for Students?

virus
Some things don't belong in public schools. Like preventable diseases.

Photo by Peeradach Rattanakoses/Shutterstock. Modified by Phil Plait.

In most states, parents have to show proof that their child is vaccinated before enrolling them in public school. In my home state of Colorado, it’s pretty easy for parents to opt out of that. All they have to do is check a box on the enrollment form that says they have either a religious or personal belief that exempts them from vaccinating their kids.

When it comes to decisions about personal matters, I tend to lean libertarian; your body, your choice. This gets stickier when that choice affects other people, and the situation can be complicated further when other choices are involved. …
In some areas, public school authorities have mandated that students be vaccinated for various diseases, and that of course can run afoul of parents’ beliefs. I’ve wrestled with this problem for a while, and I eventually came to the conclusion that a parent does not have the right to have their child in a public school if that child is unvaccinated [except for medical reasons], and for the same reason health care workers should not be unvaccinated. It all comes down to a very simple reality: It puts other children at risk. If you want to rely on the public trust then you have an obligation to the public trust as well, and part of that obligation is not sending your child to a place with other children if they aren’t immunized against preventable, communicable diseases.
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(Emphasis mine, but then, that’s me talking there; I added the part about medical reasons to be clear.)

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

I do understand that people might have a religious belief against vaccinations. However, I think religious exemptions can and should only go so far. Certainly they stop dead when religion impinges on my rights to have my child attend a school that is safe. I have even less patience for the “personal belief” exemption because that strikes me as being aimed at people who are anti-vaccination. And they are most certainly wrong. I’ll note that “personal belief” dominates the reason why parents opt out of vaccines for their children in Colorado.

So I’m very glad to see new legislation being considered in Colorado that will make it tougher to opt out of vaccinations for children going to public schools. House Bill 1288 requires either a physician’s (or similar health care provider’s) signature or the completion of an online education course about vaccines before a parent can claim personal belief exemption. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start. Since that belief exemption is so dominant, this may significantly cut back on unvaccinated kids attending public schools.

Last semester there was a whooping cough outbreak at my daughter’s school. She’s vaccinated, so I wasn’t concerned for her, but I was for all the other students who weren’t vaccinated against this contagious and dangerous disease.

So this quite literally hits home for me. Even if it didn’t, I would’ve contacted my state representative to urge her to vote yes on HB 1288. If you live in Colorado, please do the same (here’s how to find your legislators). Here is what I sent my rep, Dickey Lee Hullinghorst. Feel free to write your own version:

Dear Representative Hullinghorst—
I am writing to urge you to please vote YES on House Bill 1288, "Student Immunizations Prior To School Attendance", which will make it more difficult for parents to opt out of vaccinations for their children who attend school. 
Vaccinations are one of the (if not the most) successful medical advances in the modern age. They save quite literally millions of lives every year, and their risk is extremely small compared to their enormous benefit. In Colorado, and Boulder specifically, we have seen recent outbreaks of dangerous and potentially fatal diseases such as pertussis that are vaccine-preventable. Recently, in San Francisco, a single unvaccinated person exposed thousands of people to measles, which is highly contagious... if you're unvaccinated.
Right now, all a parent has to do is check a box on a form to opt out of getting their children vaccinated before entering school. This means many if not most will not get the correct information about the safety of vaccines and the health risks of not being vaccinated. HB 1288 will increase awareness of vaccine benefits and in many cases will make sure parents have talked to a doctor before opting out. This will hopefully greatly reduce the number of unvaccinated — and therefore at-risk — children in our schools.
Thank you,
Phil Plait

(Note: I added links to make it easier for you should you wish to read more.)

I hope this passes. It isn’t perfect—I would prefer that unvaccinated children not be sent to public school at all unless they have a medical reason; that would keep the number of vaccinated kids up into herd immunity territory—but it’s a solid start.

You can find out more about this bill at Channel 9 news and the Denver Post.

Tip o’ the virion capsid to RunMonkeyMama on Twitter.

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