As the United States grapples with a widespread measles outbreak that originated from an unvaccinated woman’s visit to Disneyland, lawmakers have started to discuss potential policies that could prevent the future spread of infectious diseases. California lawmakers, for instance, have introduced a measure that would make it harder to parents to opt out their kids from recommended vaccines.
But other states are taking the opposite approach. Colorado — which has the highest rate of schoolchildren who have not been immunized in line with federal guidelines — is proposing a measure that would underline parents’ rights to turn down vaccines.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just 82 percent of children in Colorado have gotten the two-dose vaccine that protects against measles. That’s far below the national average of 95 percent, as well as below the threshold needed to achieve herd immunity, which hovers around 94 percent. And certain parts of the state are even worse. Some school districts in Western Colorado have undervaccination rates five times higher than the state average.
“We are going to have a large outbreak of measles,” Dr. Edwin J. Asturias, a pediatrician with the Colorado School of Public Health and Children’s Hospital Colorado, told the Denver Post this week. “For almost a decade we have been accumulating people without protection. We are like a forest waiting to catch fire.”
Nonetheless, the legislature is debating a piece of legislation that would enshrine into law the right to refuse medically recommended vaccines. The bill in question would establish a so-called “Parent’s Bill of Rights” to give parents total control over their children’s health and education services.
Colorado is already one of the 20 states across the country that lets parents to claim lenient “personal belief” exemptions to vaccines, which allows them to enroll their kids in school without immunizing them. Research has linked these type of broad exemptions to a rise in disease outbreaks, since they allow a greater portion of the population to go unvaccinated. The CDC reports that, among the unvaccinated people in the U.S. who caught measles last year, nearly 80 percent of them didn’t have their shots because they claimed a personal belief exemption.
Instead of closing that loophole, however, Colorado Sen. Tim Neville (R) wants to emphasize that anti-vaccine parents should have this option.
“As a parent, I probably know best for my children,” Neville told a local Fox News affiliate. “I already have the responsibility under law, I should make sure I have the right to make their decisions for their education, their moral upbringing and also to keep them safe with the medical decisions being made.”
In addition to underlining the existing rights that parents have to opt out of vaccines and sex ed classes, Neville’s measure would also officially authorize Colorado parents to make all of the medical decisions for their children — including, potentially, sensitive mental health or sexual health services — until they turn 18.
The Colorado Coalition for Vaccine Choice, a group that lobbies against tightening the vaccine requirements in the state, has been actively supportive of the legislative effort. Previously, that organization has helped defeat proposals that would have made it harder for Colorado parents to opt out of vaccines, like requiring a medical doctor to sign off on granting the personal belief exemption.
According to a recent investigation conducted by 9NEWS, Colorado’s lawmakers are all over the map when it comes to vaccines requirements. Many of them told the outlet that, while they believe children should get vaccinated and they chose to immunize their own kids, they don’t believe it should be legislated by the state government.
On the national stage, prominent U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have taken a similar position this week, refraining from endorsing tighter state requirements for incoming schoolchildren. The White House has declined to weigh in on whether the president supports a national mandate, which would standardize state exemptions and potentially do away with the varying levels of “personal belief” policies.
All states currently have vaccination requirements for students. Without a policy in place requiring kids to get their recommended shots before entering school, it’s harder to make sure families follow through. This dynamic plays out every winter with the flu shot, which is not currently mandated for most school children — although federal health officials repeatedly urge every American to protect themselves against the flu, which can be fatal for young children, fewer than half of people actually get their shot.