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Want to Avoid That Measles Vaccine? Find Jesus 

Fair Game

Published March 21, 2012 at 8:53 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Here’s some free advice for Vermont’s anti-vaccine refuseniks: If the legislature repeals the philosophical exemption to the state’s childhood immunization law, claim the religious exemption instead.

No one’s going to ask you for a church membership card. Just tell ’em Jesus sent you and sign on the dotted line.

Faced with one of the lowest childhood-immunization rates in the country — and new outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like whooping cough — Vermont health officials want to make it harder for parents to enroll their kids in public school and daycare without being inoculated against diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella.

But not that much harder.

Vermont law currently allows parents to keep their kids from being immunized on moral grounds, if it doesn’t jibe with their beliefs. But by a vote of 25-4, the state Senate recently passed S.199, a bill that eliminates that so-called “philosophical exemption” that was first enacted in 1979. The House takes up the highly charged legislation in a public hearing on Wednesday, March 21, at 6 p.m.

The religious exemption, meanwhile, remains untouched. Why?

Because repealing it “probably wouldn’t be upheld in court,” says state Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland), the bill’s sponsor. And the last thing Vermont needs is for another indefensible case to go before the Supreme Court. Just ask Attorney General Bill Sorrell.

In Vermont, children need nine vaccines to enroll in public school or a licensed daycare. Vermont’s vaccine rate for kids between 19 and 35 months old is 65 percent — among the lowest in the country and dead last in New England. Health officials attribute the trend to more parents questioning the safety of vaccines and worrying about adverse reactions to the shots — fueled in part by a now-debunked study linking vaccines to autism.

State law allows a medical exemption, for which a licensed doctor has to vouch that a vaccine would not be advisable. When he was a child, Mullin’s son Bartley got one from his physician because the boy ran a high fever after his first measles-mumps-rubella shot. He opted out of round two.

But the philosophical and religious exemptions simply require a parent to check one of two boxes and sign off on a one-size-fits-all statement that reads, “I request that the following immunization(s) be waived because they conflict with the free exercise of religious rights and/or moral (philosophic) rights.”

It’s not that easy in every state. Massachusetts, for example, requires parents claiming a religious exemption to write a letter explaining how vaccines contradict their beliefs.

But in Vermont — the least religious state in the country, according to a 2009 Pew poll — public health officials take a parent’s beliefs on blind faith. Go figure.

If the bill becomes law, what’s to stop all the parents who now claim a philosophical exemption from simply switching to a religious one?

Nothing. That’s the main reason state Sen. Tim Ashe (D-Chittenden) voted against the immunization bill.

“They don’t check the weekly attendance roles at the church,” Ashe says. “So the question is, what impact will the change that went through the Senate have? In my opinion it will not have an impact.”

Perhaps knowing how fervent the anti-vaccine crowd is, Ashe adds a caveat. “I would like to see people get kids immunized, but if we’re going to have any exemptions at all, we should not force people into white lies.”

According to the Department of Health, 6695 Vermont children entered kindergarten last year. Of those, 0.56 percent of their parents claimed a medical exemption; just 0.18 percent went for the religious one. The number who checked the philosophical exemption box was huge in comparison: 5.4 percent.

The DOH is hoping that people won’t exercise the religious exemption if they’re not actually God-fearing folk, so they’ll just give in and inject their kids. Christine Finley, DOH’s immunization program manager, says that’s happened in other states that have done away with the philosophical exemption.

But she admits that Vermont isn’t like other states — she’s not at all sure that removing the moral exemption would actually boost vaccination rates.

“Vermont has its own uniqueness,” she says. “It’s difficult to predict.”

Springtime for Senate Wannabes

With a state Senate seat opening in Chittenden County — Democrat Hinda Miller is not seeking reelection this year — the list of potential candidates is growing faster than daffodils in this unseasonable March warmth.

Former Progressive state rep David Zuckerman, an organic farmer and perennial maybe-candidate for higher office, has said he may run as a Progressive-Democrat “fusion” candidate. Improbably, Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss, whose name is synonymous with the $17 million taxpayer bailout of Burlington Telecom, has also said he’ll probably run for Senate this year, as an independent. (See Kevin J. Kelley’s interview with Kiss in this week’s Local Matters.)

New entrants in the considering-a-run sweepstakes? Burlington City Councilor Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1) and labor organizer Ralph Montefusco. Adrian tells Fair Game, “If I can put my ducks in a row, then I’m going to do it.” Adrian works as chief prosecuting attorney for the state Office of Professional Regulation. Duck number one is clearing it with his boss, Secretary of State Jim Condos. Duck number two is testing financial support for his candidacy.

During his five years on the city council, Adrian has earned a reputation as a political “bull in a china shop,” as one colleague told Seven Days in 2010. Adrian admits to having sharper elbows than most, but says he’s mellowed since the BT battles of yesteryear. A prolific Twitter user, the 42-year-old believes his “age and experience” would bring a unique voice to the Senate.

Montefusco says he’s toying with a run as a Progressive-Democrat candidate. The Burlington resident considered running in 2010 but backed away because of work obligations. Montefusco now works for the National Education Association trying to unionize staffers at the University of Vermont. He says he’ll decide about a run as soon as mid-May.

Passing Notes

Laptops, cellphones and other electronic devices are verboten in the Senate chamber in Montpelier. So during floor debates, senators communicate with each other the fourth-grade way: by passing notes.

Instead of folding them into paper airplanes to launch at the pretty girl three desks over, they employ green-blazered pages to shuttle the handwritten messages around. And, like in grade school, it’s easy to feel left out when everyone else is snickering about their notes and you’re sitting alone like Waldo, the schoolboy in Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” music video.

Last week, I was inducted into the club: I got my first note. I was sitting in the chamber flanks when a teenage page handed me a folded piece of paper with my name on it. It was from Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) — once a vocal advocate for permitting electronics on the Senate floor. Imagine how cool I felt.

What did it say? You’ll just have to wonder. If I revealed that, I’d probably never get another Senate message — or, it might come in the form of a spitball.

Media Notes

University of Vermont assistant research professor Richard Watts has a new book about Vermont Yankee — specifically, how media coverage of the troubled nuke plant influenced its fate in Montpelier. Public Meltdown: The Story of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant is based on 1409 news articles penned between 2002 and 2010 and Watts’ own research and interviews.

The book’s official release date is March 21, the day Vermont Yankee’s 40-year operating license was set to expire — before the feds extended its life another 20 years.

Among other things, Watts’ book documents how phrases such as “out of state” — used by critics to point out that VY parent company Entergy Corp. is based in Louisiana — crept into local coverage.

The Burlington Free Press ran a page-one Sunday story on Watts’ new book but neglected to mention that he served on the board of Vermont Yankee’s biggest critic: the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. Watts resigned from the VPIRG board last May, shortly before he started work on his book. He says he was not involved with strategic decisions around VY.

“For me, the book is about telling the story and letting readers make their own conclusions,” says Watts, who is discussing his book on Wednesday, March 21, at UVM’s Billings North Lounge. Sorrell is offering a campaign speech, er, “introductory remarks.”

Former Vermont governor and U.S. ambassador to Switzerland Madeleine Kunin has a forthcoming book, too: The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family is due in April. The 78-year-old Kunin got a blurb for the back cover from former president Bill Clinton, who called it “an important new book” that “calls on all of us to be part of a brighter future.”

Lastly, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow will appear in Manchester on March 31 to read from and sign her new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. The event, sponsored by the Northshire Bookstore, will take place at Manchester Elementary School. Tickets are $8; $28 if you buy a book.

And that’s the “best new thing in the world today.” Or at least in Vermont.

(Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.)

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About The Author

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2012, and the news editor from 2012-2013.


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