Some want personal vaccine exemption restored in Missouri
Saturday, March 1, 2008
But what Drumright really wants is to tell the truth: He and his wife are skeptical about vaccines and feel the shots required for such childhood diseases as measles and chicken pox could cause more harm than good.
At a time when more parents are using religious exemptions to opt out of getting their children vaccinated, he and others want Missouri to go back to allowing parents who don’t want to immunize their school-age children to do so without having to give a reason.
Drumright, 45, said he and others are pushing for a personal exemption — also known as a philosophical or conscientious exemption — this legislative session. They have been talking to legislators about the issue, hoping to spark support.
“The point of it is the parents should be in charge of the health care needs of their children,” said Drumright, whose daughter is 8 and sons are 6 and 4. “It’s not up to the state to dictate to parents how they should make important health-care decisions about their children.”
Sen. John Loudon, R-Chesterfield, said he’s considering backing a proposal for a personal exemption. He has headed similar efforts in the past, most recently in 2003.
“I am always open to it,” Loudon said of the idea of a personal exemption. “I think when a parent does their diligence and has cause for alarm, they should have the authority over government to control the health of their children.”
Earlier this month, Loudon refiled a bill that he said should help determine the level of support among legislators for a personal exemption.
Loudon’s bill deals with the issue of vaccine control, but as it relates to lawmakers, not parents. It seeks to give the legislature full control over mandating new vaccines. Under the proposal, state health officials still would control how vaccines that are already required are administered to children, but they could not add new mandatory vaccines without legislative approval.
Although the deadline for filing legislation in the Senate has passed, Loudon said he still would work with fellow legislators to get a personal exemption bill filed in the House if his vaccine control proposal is well-received. The chances of such a bill moving through the Legislature, however, decrease the longer they wait to get started.
Missouri parents once had the right to exempt their children from immunizations without needing to provide a reason. But the law changed in 1992, and now parents can only opt out of their kids’ shots for religious or medical reasons.
Drumright and other opponents of vaccines say medical exemptions can be difficult to get a doctor to sign off on, and religious exemptions put parents in an awkward position. They say parents might feel wrong about giving religion — though parents in Missouri can cite religion without having to declare a particular faith — as a reason if their resistance to vaccines has nothing to do with their faith.
The Associated Press has found that a small but growing number of parents around the country are claiming religious exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children when the real reason may be skepticism of the shots or concern they can cause other illnesses.
“While you can never guarantee that immunizations will not cause a problem, they are extremely safe. But the diseases are not,” said Sue Denny, a spokeswoman with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. “It’s in the best interest of maintaining the health of not only school children but the rest of the population to have a high immunization rate.”
Denny said the health department has only seen a slight increase in the number of parents using the religious exemption in recent school years, while the number using the medical exemption has stayed about the same.
State health department records show that about 4,700 religious exemptions and more than 1,500 medical exemptions were claimed for Missouri students during the 2006-2007 school year, the most recent year in which data is available.
In the 15 years since Missouri’s vaccine exemption law changed, there have been moves to restore it but none were successful. Vaccine critics, both locally and nationally, think an exemption proposal could have a chance now.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an AP survey of state health departments, 20 states allow parents to cite personal or philosophical reasons for opting out of their children’s immunizations. The most recent to add a personal exemption was Texas in 2003.
“As more and more vaccines are being added to the list, that is where you’re getting some pushback by parents, and legitimately so,” said Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, a vaccine safety watchdog agency in Vienna, Va.
She said parents are feeling pressured and powerless with all the vaccine mandates.
“The one-size-fits all approach to vaccinations … is simply not medically responsible,” Fisher said. “Parents have to be given more flexibility.”
Koreen Bowers, a mother of three from St. Louis, said she’s wrestling with whether she will claim a religious exemption to avoid certain vaccines for her oldest child, who starts kindergarten next school year. She wishes Missouri had a philosophical exemption like her home state, Minnesota.
“I think it just puts a little more control in the hands of concerned parents,” said Bowers, 39, a financial services worker. “It’s not just about being anti-vaccine. It’s about allowing parents to be a little more selective and be able to make an informed decision.”
Drumright said parents often are not aware they have options. They go with the notion that vaccines are mandatory and don’t think to question it, he said.
“We need an exemption where the parent can say ‘I’m an informed consumer’ and ‘No thank you,’ ” Drumright said.