Our opinion: Vermont not immune to measles' spread

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As measles outbreaks grow across the country, it's worth examining Vermont's vaccination rates, and whether state public health policy can improve upon its performance.

The Bennington School District board thinks so. The board recently voted to ask the state to tighten exemptions to state vaccination requirements, seeking an end to the religious exemption for vaccination and the current six-month grace period now extended for children entering school or childcare.

"We cannot protect students who are medically unable to be vaccinated from students whose parents refuse to vaccinate their children for other reasons," the board said in a letter to Gov. Phil Scott, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, and to members of the county delegation to Montpelier.

The good news from the state Department of Health is that the vaccination rate in the state's regulated child care programs (representing 59 percent of the state's children under 5) and K-12 schools is about 94 percent.

But there are areas where the vaccination rates are lower, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

According to the data, the percentage of children entering kindergarten whose caregivers are citing a religious exemption from vaccination has increased from 3.7 percent to 4.4 percent. That's compared to 2.6 percent for children in regulated child care, and 3.1 percent for children grades K-12.

The exemption rate is higher among independent schools.

According to state health data the religious exemption levels for children entering kindergarten in independent schools is 13.1 percent —significantly higher than 3.8 percent for kindergarteners entering public schools.

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Furthermore, public schools are far more likely to have students meeting the two-dose requirement for the measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. According to the data, the public K-12 rate for full MMR immunization is 97.4 percent in public schools, and 93.2 percent among independent schools. That trend is consistent among high schools in Bennington and Windham counties.

The trouble is that measles is not a benign illness. It's potentially very serious, if not deadly.

There's unfortunately a growing segment of the population that claims we're all being led astray by a massive conspiracy of scientists, media, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies that's hushing up the "truth" about vaccinations. As that paranoia takes hold, measles, which was declared all but eliminated in 2000, now poses a public health threat.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 764 individual cases of measles have been confirmed in 23 states, an increase of 60 cases from the previous week and the most cases reported since 1994.

Thankfully, the CDC is not reporting any cases of measles in Vermont. But the threat is real.

In a news release, state Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD said Vermonters "need to make sure that they and their children are protected."

"Misinformation about the safety of vaccines is a significant factor contributing to the outbreaks," Levine said in the release. "We encourage concerned parents and caregivers to ask questions. Talk with your child's pediatrician and get the evidence-based information you need to protect yourself, your family and your community."

Humans are a funny lot. We used to think the earth was flat. We put scientists in prison for daring to suggest the earth didn't revolve around the sun. We arrested, tried, convicted and executed people for witchcraft.

But we got smarter.


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