The state of Washington has dramatically decreased the number of parents who aren’t vaccinating their children while still allowing them the option of non-medical exemptions.
How does it achieve this remarkable result?
With a law that simply requires vaccine-hesitant parents to go see a doctor for some educated words about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. If after that discussion they still want to leave their children without some or all of the scheduled vaccinations, they can do so. But many of them decide to go ahead with the shots that will protect their children from vaccine-preventable diseases.
According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, the number of parents seeking exemptions fell by 40 percent after the 2011 law was implemented, and the numbers stayed at that level in subsequent years.
The study was conducted by Dr. Saad Omer, a professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at Emory University.
Sad to say, a bill that would have created a similar parent-education rule never made it out of committee in the Texas Legislature last year. HB 126 would have allowed Texas parents to take a free online health education module prior to submitting their application for vaccine exemptions. This would have allowed parents to get information more easily, instead of making an additional appointment with a health care provider, as in the Washington. The Texas bill would have still allowed non-medical exemptions. All they would have needed to do was take an online class for a half hour to an hour in order to exempt their children from the state’s vaccination laws for children attending public school.
Why are such laws useful? Even though most Texas parents have their children immunized, the number of non-medical exemptions has steadily increased since 2003, to more than 20 times what it was then. In pockets of the state, vaccination rates are dangerously low, enough to give rise to outbreaks of measles and other diseases.
Though parents’ feelings are often phrased in absolute pro/con terms, the reality is far more nuanced.
Yes, some parents are absolutely set against vaccines. But many have their children vaccinated against some illnesses but not others. Others simply are uncertain, after hearing myths promulgated by vaccine opponents. The latter two groups might find helpful answers from clear, science-based information on the topic.
There are some advantages to the Washington requirement that parents take their children to a doctor. According to reporting by HealthDay, some of the law’s success might be due to the very fact that parents needed to take the mildly inconvenient step of going to the doctor. There’s a fourth category of parents who seek exemptions: Those who don’t have major concerns about vaccination, but find it easier to fill out the form than to have to consult a doctor.
Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a national renowned vaccination expert, told HealthDay that convenience was almost certainly a factor. Once it was less easy to get an exemption, many parents didn’t bother.
Omer, the author of the study, agreed that it was a factor, but said also that he believed it made a difference for parents to be better informed about vaccination and contagious diseases. Laws like Washington’s – or like HB 126 would have been – are a useful way to get more children vaccinated and protect public health while not interfering with individual parents’ ultimate decisions.
“Your choice about vaccination is not being taken away," he told HealthDay, while providing parents with a fact-based discussion about immunization.
That was a message that Texas legislators didn’t appear ready to hear this year. Perhaps studies like Omer’s will help convince them in the future.
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