Government, Health Care, and Law

Lawmakers eye undoing parental education for immunization waivers

September 29, 2017
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Parents who don’t want to vaccinate their kids could skip an education session designed to teach them the benefits of vaccines and the risks of disease, under legislation proposed by two Republican lawmakers.

A 2014 rule requires parents to first learn about vaccines from a county health department to get an immunization waiver, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The rule was put in place by a joint committee of the House and Senate, not the entire Legislature.

Michigan allows immunization waivers for medical, religious and philosophical reasons. Medical waivers are completed by a physician. The education requirement pertains only to parents claiming religious and philosophical reasons.

Michigan had the sixth-highest waiver rate for kindergarteners in the country in 2014-15, according to the state health agency. The state moved to 11th place after the educational requirement was put in place.

“Over the past two years, we’ve seen a 33 percent decrease in waivers,” said Bob Swanson, director of the Health and Human Services division of immunizations.

Rep. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) and Rep. Jeff Noble (R-Plymouth) introduced bills earlier this year to undo the education requirements.

One of the problems with the administrative rule is it contradicts state law, Barrett testified before the House Education Reform Committee.

“Michigan law grants parents the right to waive any and all vaccines for their children for medical, philosophical or religious reasons,” he said. “That law remains on the books today.”

The Department of Health and Human Services opposes the bills.

“From a public health standpoint, vaccines are very important,” Swanson said.

Supporters of the repeal say the issue is about parental rights.

“We support the right for parents to choose if their kids are vaccinated,” said Beth Bechtel, a volunteer with Michigan for Vaccine Choice. “As a group, we are not for or against vaccines. We simply believe parents should be able to choose.”

Noble testified parents and not the government should be encouraged to make wise decisions.

State health authorities note the education requirement does not take away a parent’s rights.

“The education informs parents of the benefits of being vaccinated and the risks of diseases, but afterward, they still have the right to choose to sign a waiver,” Swanson said.

Another criticism levied by opponents is the requirement was approved by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rule instead of the entire Legislature.

“If the Department of Health and Human Services wanted to change the rules, they should have written up bills,” Bechtel said.

Five vaccines are required for kindergarten school entry, according to the state health agency. That includes vaccines for chickenpox; polio; measles, mumps and rubella; diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; and hepatitis B.

Some parents are opposed to only certain vaccines due to religious or philosophical beliefs, Bechtel said. The most common one is for chickenpox.

Only about 3 percent of children in the United States are completely unvaccinated, according to state health officials.

Swanson said ending the education requirement would make waiver rates go back up and increase the risk of disease.

“The more people who are susceptible, the higher the risk for outbreak,” he said.

As of June 30, Houghton County had the highest waiver rate at 13.5 percent. Luce County had the lowest at 0.6 percent, according to Health and Human Services.

When 90 to 95 percent of a community is protected, it is almost impossible for vaccine-preventable diseases to spread, according to health officials administering the state’s “I vaccinate” campaign. As that number decreases, the risk of outbreak increases.

“A number of preventable disease outbreaks have occurred in Michigan, as well as other spots in the U.S., due to low vaccination rates,” said Angela Minicuci, the communications director for the department.

A current example is a hepatitis A outbreak among adults in southeast Michigan, Swanson said.

“We haven’t seen it in a lot of kids because they’ve been vaccinated,” he said. “But most adults were never vaccinated against the virus, making them susceptible.”

State health authorities said as many people as possible should be vaccinated to protect those who cannot be vaccinated, such as pregnant women, babies, the elderly and ones who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

“Vaccines are the best protection against diseases,” Swanson said.

The bills are in the House Committee on Education Reform.

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