- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2016

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Religious exemptions for childhood immunizations are up slightly now that the philosophical one is going away, new state figures show.

It’s still fewer than 1 percent of families with kindergarteners going the religious exemption route, said Christine Finley, immunization chief for the Vermont Health Department. But the numbers jumped from 0.1 percent, or eight out of 6,277 kindergarteners during the last school year, to 0.9 percent, or 59 of 6,366, during the current one.

The release of the figures this month comes about a year after Vermont passed a law removing the philosophical exemption but left the religious one intact. The exemptions gave an out to parents who don’t want to meet the requirement that children be fully immunized on the schedule recommended by the Health Department and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The longer-term trends are more positive from the Health Department’s perspective, Finley said, with the percentage of fully vaccinated kindergarteners climbing nearly 3 percentage points, from 86.9 percent in the 2012-2013 school year to 89.7 percent this year. Vermont moved from near the bottom among states for vaccine compliance to the middle of the pack, she said.

“We’re really pleased with the progress we’ve made on that. We’re doing well in protecting children,” Finley said.

The religious exemption is geared to those who say their faith drives them to reject some or all vaccines. The philosophical exemption is broader, and can include parents who dispute the strong scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective.

The law eliminating the philosophical exemption takes effect July 1, and Jennifer Stella, president of the group Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice, said she expects the rate of religious exemptions to climb when school starts in September and schools call for parents to update vaccination records.

So far, though, state data show religious exemptions are up to the same degree that philosophical ones are down during the last year the latter will be available. For grades K-12 taken together, philosophical exemptions were down 0.4 percent for this, the last year they’ll be allowed. Religious exemptions were up by 0.4 percent.

Most major medical groups support compulsory vaccinations. The American Medical Association last year called for states to move toward barring any exemptions that are not for medical reasons.

Dr. Patrice A. Harris, an AMA board member, said in a statement that “protecting community health in today’s mobile society requires that policymakers not permit individuals (to opt out) of immunization solely as a matter of personal preference or convenience.”

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