The paper reams required to register a child for school each year are formidable, and one of the most important forms is that showing each student’s vaccination records. There is a vested public-health interest in students being vaccinated for common childhood illnesses as well as knowing which children have not received those immunizations. And while there may be religious or personal reasons that parents choose to forgo certain or all vaccinations, those decisions should not be made lightly. A state task force is proposing a remedy that would help inform vaccination decisions. It is a good idea.
The task force, which the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment formed to consider why the state had the most children who skipped vaccinations in the last school year, has recommended that before parents can opt out their kids from immunizations for personal reasons, they be required to attend an education session about vaccines. While that might be onerous for some parents, it also could significantly boost the level of information parents have available when making vaccination decisions and have a positive public-health outcome.
Most states offer religious exemptions from school vaccination requirements, and Colorado is one of 18 states that also offer a personal-belief exception. That exception, while an important one in ensuring parents are empowered to make health choices for their children, is one that is best applied after adequate information is gathered. By requiring parents to attend an education session, the state health department would encourage that due diligence on parents’ part as well as be demonstrating it as an agency.
The public-health goals that inform the state’s vaccination schedule are both sizeable and critical. Protecting populations from illnesses known to wreak havoc is the crucial work of public health departments. It has been astoundingly effective. According to the Centers for Disease Control, vaccinations in the 20th century eradicated smallpox, polio, diphtheria and measles deaths in the United States and diminished deaths from pertussis by 96 percent, tetanus by 97 percent, mumps by 99 percent and rubella by 99 percent. There is no arguing with those results, and health departments, schools and parents would be wise to participate in their continuance.
Public-health issues aside, though, vaccination is a personal choice that parents of all belief systems – religious or otherwise – have to make with their children’s health in mind. Doing so responsibly requires some study. The Colorado Department of Health and Environment is right to press the issue in requiring – and offering – education about vaccinations’ effectiveness as well as risks and benefits associated with the practice. Doing so would force parents to consider a bit more fully the implications of exercising a personal exemption from immunization requirements. Such informed decision-making is appropriate in all contexts but is absolutely crucial when it comes to public and personal health.