Colorado's Personal Belief Exemption Target Of New Report
The Colorado Department of Health released a report with recommendations seeking to restrict the ways parents can opt out of immunizing their children against childhood diseases such as whooping cough and measles.
According to the report 3,000 kindergartners every year go to school under vaccinated. Last school year 4.3 percent of kindergartners were not fully vaccinated when they entered school due to exemptions. Of those, 93 percent were personal belief exemptions.
The report advocates sharing more data between state departments on immunization rates and requiring education counseling for parents or guardians before a personal belief exemption can be signed.
Dr. Rachel Herlihy is the director of the Colorado Health Department’s immunization section. She says the idea for the report came two years ago, after Colorado had the second highest rate in the country of vaccine exemptions.
“In 2010 and 2011 Colorado had its highest personal belief exemption rate. Our exemption rate was 7.2 percent—that’s the highest it's been in at least recent years,” Herlihy said.
“Stakeholders, you know from the immunization community educators, health care workers, started reaching out to us and asking us some questions about the personal belief exemption process here a why our rate was so high,” she added.
Colorado’s personal belief exemption is one of three ways parents can keep their children from being vaccinated. The other two are medical, which requires the signature of a physician, and religious – which like the personal belief exemption, only requires the signature of a parent or guardian.
“The existence of the personal belief exemption here in Colorado is obviously something that our legislature felt strongly about and created legislation around a number of years ago,” Herlihy said. “The focus of the recommendations in this report are around ensuring the personal belief exemption is used appropriately in Colorado.”
Colorado is one of a minority of states that have a personal belief exemption, which gives parents the flexibility to opt out of vaccinating their children for philosophical reasons. The report doesn’t advocate getting rid of the personal belief exemption, rather it recommends requiring education or counseling for parents or guardians before a personal belief exemption can be signed.
According to the report, in states like Colorado, where a parental signature alone is sufficient to claim an exemption, the incidence of whooping cough or pertussis, is 41 percent higher than in states with more restrictive exemption requirements.
The idea of an informed choice by parents is something that Dr. Mark Wallace, Director of Public Health in Weld County supports.
He was not involved in the report.
“I find individuals when they're looking at what to do for their children frequently turning to the Internet where there is a lot of information but there’s a challenge today that the Internet has opened up a sort of information hydrant without any filter on it,” Wallace said.
Wallace says he would like to see the recommendations of the report enacted, with parents receiving scientifically vetted information and counseling before they can sign the personal belief exemption.
The report was conducted over a period of 6 months with focus groups of stakeholders such as parents and guardians and groups both for and against vaccinations, as well as health care workers.
The recommendations will now be taken into consideration by the state health department.