- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 5, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Author, activist and Kennedy family scion Robert F. Kennedy Jr. brought his vaccine skepticism to the Vermont Statehouse on Tuesday, urging lawmakers not to do away with the philosophical exemption that allows parents to avoid having their children fully vaccinated.

Kennedy told the Vermont House Health Care Committee that the Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies had been corrupted because review committees for vaccines often are filled with people who have a financial stake in the drugs’ success. Courts’ hands have been tied with a federal law barring law suits against vaccine makers, he said.

“The only thing left that protects that child from that (drug) company, the only barrier standing, is the parent. And now they want to take the parent away,” Kennedy said of the push to end the philosophical exemption.

The committee heard a different view from its next witness, Dr. John Modlin, deputy director for polio at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle. Modlin, former chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Dartmouth College-affiliated Geisel School of Medicine, said the National Academy of Sciences-affiliated Institute of Medicine released a wide-ranging report on vaccines in January of 2013 that reached one strong conclusion:

“The safety record of these vaccines is just unassailable,” Modlin told the committee.

The testimony came as the committee responds to an amendment passed by the Senate two weeks ago that would eliminate the philosophical exemption.

One question that has been central to the debate is whether enough Vermont parents have taken the exemption so that populations of children at their local schools have dropped below levels believed to deliver “herd immunity.” That’s when the percentage of people in a given population is high enough to ensure against an infectious disease gaining a foothold in that population.

The state health department reported recently that Vermont’s statewide vaccination rates are high enough to indicate herd immunity. But it said the rates of vaccination are low enough in some local school districts to put herd immunity in jeopardy in those communities.

A question for lawmakers is whether the House committee will decide it has gathered enough testimony to bring the issue of the philosophical exemption to a vote in the full House by the end of next week, when the Legislature is expected to adjourn for the year. If that doesn’t happen, lawmakers could take the issue up when they return for the second year of the Legislature’s term in January.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has supported maintaining the philosophical exemption in the past, but his spokesman, Scott Coriell, said in an email Thursday, that “if the Legislature wants to debate this issue further he (Shumlin) is open to that debate.”

Tuesday also featured a news conference by a group of Vermont mothers and grandmothers supporting an end to the philosophical exemption. Their lead speaker was Burlington physician Dr. Mia Hockett, who said her young daughter suffers from childhood leukemia.

Hockett said she feared her daughter’s suppressed immune system would make her more susceptible to contracting measles or other vaccine-preventable diseases from non-vaccinated children.


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