A bill moving through the Colorado Legislature would require parents who wish to exempt their children from vaccinations for personal reasons to undergo education about the risks and benefits of immunization. It is not the ultimate fix of simply making vaccinations mandatory for all, but it would be a worthwhile step toward ending exemptions based on rumor, conjecture and bogus science. And with that, it could go a long way to improving public health.
House Bill 1288 was introduced Friday. It passed the House on a 42-19 vote Monday and now heads to the Senate. It should be passed. As one of the bill’s sponsors said, “It is not only a personal choice. When some children don’t get these vaccines, it affects the health of other kids, too.”
Vaccinations for diseases such as mumps, measles, rubella, diphtheria and pertussis are mandated for school children in every state. Laws allowing for exemptions, however, vary greatly. Some states allow exceptions only for medical reasons. Others also allow exemptions for religious beliefs. Colorado is one of only 18 states that allows parents to refuse vaccinations for their children based on medical reasons, religious tenets or personal beliefs.
But, too often, those personal beliefs could be based on nothing more than Internet rumor, the unscientific fear mongering of antivaccine activists or simple loathing of any government-enacted mandate. But with that, those parents need to know that they are endangering not only their own children, but society as a whole.
That should be the focus of the education House Bill 1288 would require. Too few people understand how vaccination works. Preventing the vaccinated person from contracting a disease is only one aspect of the process. Its larger function is the establishment of what is called “herd immunity,” whereby widespread immunization keeps the disease out of the population. That then protects not only those who have been vaccinated, but babies too young to be vaccinated and those with medical conditions that preclude the shots.
Moreover, that process has been repeatedly proven to work. Smallpox may have killed more people than anything in history. It has been eradicated through widespread vaccination programs. Polio was a common and too often crippling disease well within living memory. But since the development of vaccines to prevent it in the 1950s, the yearly scares that closed public swimming pools and kept kids away from camps have ended. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States has been completely polio-free since 1979.
But all that could change. With its loose provisions for allowing exemptions, Colorado has an immunization rate of 71 percent, one of the lowest in the country. And with that, there has been a resurgence of such diseases as pertussis. Also known as whooping cough, pertussis was all but unheard of in this country for decades. That it is in the news yearly any more is directly attributable to people refusing vaccinations.
Opponents of this bill argue that the issue is one of personal choice and individual liberty. Perhaps they see it as akin to eating junk food or engaging in dangerous sports.
Those activities primarily put the individual at risk. A better analogy for refusing vaccinations is drunken driving. Those making the decision to drink and drive not only endanger themselves but others as well, and with that, the law does not consider drunken driving a matter of personal choice.
The same thinking should be applied to vaccinations. Acting in a way that encourages the spread of diseases such as whooping cough is not a personal choice but a threat to society. It should be treated as such.