Debate In Colorado Grows Over Child Vaccinations

Jan 20, 2014
Originally published on January 20, 2014 4:52 pm

The controversy around immunizing children against disease has been raging for years. On the one hand are parents who vaccinate their kids and don’t want them made vulnerable to illnesses. On the other hand are parents who believe some vaccines may in fact be harmful to their children’s health.

In Colorado, opting your kids out of vaccinations is as simple as signing a piece of paper. But with cases of one preventable disease already at epidemic levels, some state health organizations are arguing that it may be time to make that a tougher choice.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio brings us this report.


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In California, health officials are grappling with a jump in cases of pertussis or whooping cough, a contagious and potentially deadly respiratory infection. Cases of pertusses jumped to 1,700 in California last year. That's a 63 percent increase over the previous years. And other states are dealing with a similar issue.

In Colorado, pertussis is at epidemic levels, even though the sickness is preventable. There are vaccines. Some people believe that vaccines can harm their children despite scientific evidence, and in Colorado, California and more than a dozen other states, opting children out of vaccinations is as simple as signing a piece of paper.

But some Colorado health officials are now arguing that it may be time to make that a tougher choice. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: When people talk about preventable diseases and the debate over vaccination, the condition they all bring up is pertussis. 2013 was the second year in a row that the disease reached epidemic levels in Colorado. Search for videos of the condition on YouTube, and you'll immediately understand how the disease got its other name: whooping cough.


STEVE PERRY: It's like you kind of gasp and have this paroxysm of coughing like right after another. So it's a very distinct cough.

VERLEE: Denver pediatrician Steve Perry says he sees cases of whooping cough every week at his practice, and about as frequently he encounters parents worried about the potential side effects of vaccinating their young children against pertussis and other diseases.

PERRY: A couple of times a week we may have some hesitancy about doing all of the vaccines. So nowadays the hesitancy is more around the number of vaccines and the timing of the vaccines.

VERLEE: Colorado requires a long list of vaccinations for children who attend daycare centers and schools, but it's very easy for parents to get out of them. Rachel Herlihy with the State Health Department says they can invoke what's called a personal belief exemption.

RACHEL HERLIHY: So it's really just a parent's signature on a form. It's just a one-time signature. It's not something that needs to be renewed every year.

VERLEE: In 2011, the National Centers for Disease Control listed Colorado as having the second-highest rate of vaccine exemptions in the country, at the time around seven percent for kindergarteners. That raises the risk that preventable diseases could gain a foothold and possibly find their way to newborns and people with compromised immune systems, where the results could be fatal.

Herlihy says the situation got some in the health community questioning whether it should be harder for parents to exempt their kids.

HERLIHY: There have been a number of states that have implemented required education and counseling prior to claiming a personal belief exemption. So Oregon, for instance, just implemented an online training that parents can do.

VERLEE: In some states that training has to be in person with a medical professional. Stephanie Wasserman is with the Colorado Children's Immunization Coalition. She says nationwide data shows education is important when it comes to parents' vaccine decisions.

STEPHANIE WASSERMAN: Really, only about two percent of parents are I guess what you'd call them, hardcore refusers. But I think the data's range is between 10 and 25 percent of parents have questions about vaccines.

VERLEE: But some parents who choose not to vaccinate argue they've already answered those questions for themselves. For them, concerns about possible side effects outweigh fears of disease, and as Theresa Wrangham of the National Vaccine Information Center says, requiring those parents to get permission from a doctor is, well...

THERESA WRANGHAM: I think it's a bit arrogant, actually, to say for those of you who don't agree with the public health agenda and who seek exemption, we're going require that you get extra education because obviously you're missing the boat here.

VERLEE: Wrangham's organization is focused on the potential side effects of vaccines, including, she says, chronic brain and immune system disorders. She argues that Colorado's policy is working just fine without any changes. The exemption rate actually fell last year. And there's something else at play too. People on both sides of the vaccine issue agree that there are probably fewer unvaccinated kids in Colorado than the opt-out rate suggests. That's because parents who can't easily dig up their kids' immunization records may just sign a personal belief exemption as the easy way out.

Wrangham says requiring education doesn't do anything for them.

WRANGHAM: For the parents who are taking it because they didn't have their paperwork, or they, you know, they just couldn't get it together, we all know what it's like to get back into school, how are we really affecting those parents?

VERLEE: Instead, Wrangham says, an education requirement would really be an attempt to pressure those families who have consciously decided to opt out.

WRANGHAM: And what you're really trying to do is make it harder for them to exercise their right to say no or their right to delay.

VERLEE: If Colorado does make it harder to opt out of childhood vaccinations, it will be following in the footsteps of states like Washington and California.

WRANGHAM: From a legislative level, it's getting increasingly hostile. We're seeing a big push to restrict choice.

VERLEE: It's not clear if the Colorado legislature will actually tackle vaccine exemptions this sessions. Lawmakers say they want to wait until the state has more accurate information about how many children really aren't getting their shots. But when they do take on this issue, the debate is expected to be very heated. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Megan Verlee in Denver.

CHAKRABARTI: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.