Vaccine issue resurfaces in Montpelier, but leadership not keen on reliving old battle

One of the surprise controversies of 2012 arrived at the Legislature in the form of a bill that sought to rescind the “philosophical exemption” invoked by hundreds of parents across Vermont to sidestep school vaccination requirements.

A grassroots coalition of well-organized citizens managed to quash the legislation, convincing lawmakers to adopt a watered-down version that made it only slightly more difficult to invoke the exemption.

One the top supporters of the 2012 bill, however, is renewing the push this year to address what he says are alarmingly low vaccination rates in pockets of the state.

Rep. George Till, a Jericho Democrat and the lone medical doctor in the Legislature, wants to remove both the philosophical and religious exemptions for the vaccination that prevents pertussis – a.k.a. whooping cough. And at public schools where the vaccination rate drops below 90 percent, Till has a separate bill that would revoke the religious and philosophical exemptions for any vaccination.

Till says the pertussis problem is particularly acute, growing from 18 confirmed cases in 2010 to 645 in 2012.

“And in 2012 that included four cases in infants,” Till says. “And while we got lucky and none of them died, the quote mortality rates for infants is 50 percent, so we really could have had a tragedy.”

The second bill would take a school-by-school approach to the vaccination issue, eliminating the religious and philosophical exemptions only at public schools that fall below the 90 percent threshold. When rates for any single vaccination fell below that mark, Till says, his bill would require all current and prospective students to have the vaccine administered. Parents that didn’t comply wouldn’t be allowed to send their children to the school. Till says the bill preserves the medical exemption.

Rep. Mike Fisher, chairman of the House Committee on Health Care (on which Till also sits) doesn’t sound keen on revisiting the vaccine issue.

He says the House dedicated a lot of time to the issue last year.

“We addressed vaccinations last year, and I think we should give that law time to play out before coming back to it,” Fisher says. “I don’t think we’re interested in taking it up at this time.” In a report submitted last week to the Legislature, Commissioner of Health Harry Chen said the most effective way to protect “immunocompromised” students is to require universal immunization.

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