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Legislators hope to boost state’s immunization rates 

A shot in the dark

click to enlarge Laura’s rare genetic disorder prevents her from getting some vaccines. - COURTESY OF ANGELA HOWARD
  • Courtesy of Angela Howard
  • Laura’s rare genetic disorder prevents her from getting some vaccines.

Like any parent, Angela Howard sometimes worries about sending her child to school.

Five-year-old Laura, who loves songs and story time at her preschool, plans to start kindergarten in the fall. But Howard is concerned about the state’s low vaccination rates, lenient policy on vaccine exemptions and reported measles cases.

Unlike other parents, Howard can’t vaccinate her child to keep her from contracting a preventable disease that could be deadly. Laura has a rare genetic disorder that makes her immune system too weak to receive vaccines containing live viruses, such as those for measles and chickenpox. 

“It’s really important to us that Laura be able to attend school, partially because she received therapy services there that are important for her development, and also because she loves the social aspects of school,” Howard says. “... We rely on all those other kids in her schools to be vaccinated to protect her from the illnesses that she can’t be vaccinated against.”

Colorado consistently ranks among the lowest in the country for immunization rates at schools and child care facilities, and vaccine advocates say that’s largely because state policy makes it all too easy to obtain an exemption for religious or personal reasons. 

House Bill 1312, sponsored by Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Adams County, would require parents who obtain a religious or personal exemption to get an in-person signature at their local public health department. 

Mullica, a registered nurse, says public health legislation should be based upon facts, and not politics: “We have to have herd immunity for these immunizations to work.”

click to enlarge CS INDY GRAPHIC ILLUSTRATION
  • CS Indy Graphic Illustration

Some researchers say the state is vulnerable to a measles outbreak, because 90 to 95 percent immunization rates are needed to maintain “herd immunity,” but the state’s kindergarten MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) fully immunized rate for the 2017-18 school year was 88.76 percent. El Paso County’s was 83.22 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in late March that the U.S. had seen 314 measles cases since Jan. 1 — just 58 cases shy of the 372 cases reported in all of 2018. Meanwhile, UNICEF announced in February that its calculations of World Health Organization data from 194 countries showed a 48.4 percent increase in global measles cases between 2017 and 2018.

The Colorado bill doesn’t go as far as fully banning nonmedical exemptions — when it was rumored that it would, Gov. Jared Polis indicated he might veto the bill. Instead, advocates hope it will boost the state’s immunization rates by making exemptions less convenient for parents.

“The bill in its current form represents a true Colorado solution,” says Stephanie Wasserman, executive director of the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition. “It’s common sense — it takes into account a lot of different perspectives on what’s going to help Colorado improve its childhood immunization rates and make schools safe for all children.”

Major variations in immunization rates among counties, school districts, and even among schools exist in Colorado. It’s hard to tie the variations to any particular factor. Opposition to vaccines exists across the political spectrum, Wasserman says. Often it’s due to false information parents read on the internet that leads them to believe vaccines are dangerous.

“This bill is not supporting and empowering us parents who know what’s best for our children. It’s a slap in the face,” Margaret Terlaje said at a 14-hour committee hearing April 15. After emotional testimony on both sides of the issue that lasted into the early morning, the House Health & Insurance Committee voted 7-4 to move the bill forward. A full House vote was set for April 24.

House Bill 1312 would also require the state Department of Health and Environment to develop standardized forms for vaccine exemptions, and educational materials related to immunizations.

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