Imagine that you are a parent and your child’s immune system is not functioning well. This past year has been terrifying with the constant threat of COVID-19, stories of immunocompromised children fighting for their lives in ICUs and parents having to deny friendships, camps, church, schools and other cherished childhood activities.
These parents are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel of anxiety and fear. COVID-19 rates are finally dropping, schools are reopening, teachers are getting vaccinated, vaccine trials for childhood COVID-19 vaccines have begun, and a brighter future lies ahead.
There is only one problem. During the pandemic, parents were justifiably fearful of pediatrician offices and often decided to delay routine well-child visits.
Nonessential appointments were delayed by pediatrician offices in an attempt to mitigate the spread of disease. As a result, kids have not been getting their routine vaccines. At last check, orders for vaccines for children were down over 400,000 doses nationally and vaccination rates have been plummeting everywhere.
So, while we may be finally putting COVID-19 in the rearview mirror, outbreaks of pertussis, measles, mumps, meningitis and other preventable diseases loom if our children do not catch up with their vaccines by fall.
Parents of immunocompromised children again face agonizing decisions as to whether to send their kids to dangerous schools and settings where herd immunity to preventable diseases is gone, or keep them at home.
Our state House lawmakers recently chose to take up legislation, House Bill 37, to further weaken state mandatory vaccine religious exemption laws. They believe this bill, which got a 10-6 vote of approval Tuesday in the Education committee, will help promote “parental choice” by allowing parents to simply submit a signed piece of paper exempting their children from any and all vaccines. This bill would also remove immunization requirements from non-public schools and child care centers.
Make no mistake, by seemingly granting hassle-free parental rights to one set of parents, you deny rights to another — those who rely on mandatory school vaccination laws to keep their immunocompromised children safe. In short, rights are denied to parents, children and teachers who need safe schools.
For example, a school with 95% vaccination rates for measles has achieved herd immunity, making it safe for any child to attend that school. A school with high exemption rates, and perhaps only 80% to 90% vaccination rates for measles, will lose herd immunity and put children and teachers at risk for a potentially deadly infection.
To obtain a religious exemption for mandatory school vaccines in most counties, parents must make an appointment at their local health department to obtain a special exemption card, as well as meet with a public health nurse who can discuss the risks and benefits of vaccinating their child. Those nurses can also advocate for the role of vaccines in keeping immunosuppressed and other at-risk children safe. Parents can discuss their concerns about vaccine safety, as well as gain an understanding of risks associated with the diseases that these vaccines prevent. This conversation can influence parental thinking; many times, parents ultimately do agree to vaccinate their children, thereby protecting their own kids as well as other vulnerable kids and people in their community.
To be clear, voting no on this bill does not take away the right to request or be granted religious exemptions from vaccines. It only ensures that parents are clear on the risks and benefits of vaccinations.
Now is not the time to pile on risks for vulnerable children in our community. By weakening our exemption laws, Missouri opens the door for more deadly infectious disease transmission in our schools right when we are finally emerging from this dreadful pandemic. Now is the time to get our children caught up on their routine vaccines and back in healthy, safe schools.
Lawmakers ought to support our teachers, nurses and immunization programs, not endanger and undermine them. HB 37 is dangerous and completely lacking in compassion for teachers and parents of vulnerable children. Contact your state legislator and urge them to oppose HB 37. Let’s keep our schools safe.
Lynelle Phillips is president of the Missouri Immunization Coalition and vice president of the Missouri Public Health Association. Tracy Martino-Hsu is a doctor of nursing practice and board certified family nurse practitioner. She is affiliated with the Missouri Immunization Coalition.