OPINION: A Blitz . . . on vaccines

Isaac Martin, Political Contributor

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Another bout of the stomach flu is sweeping through Michiganders, as a pair of new bills have been introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives. Two weeks ago, State Representative Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) and State Senator Pat Colbeck (R-Canton) introduced legislation to decrease requirements for parents hoping to opt out of state-mandated vaccines for their school-bound children.

The facts

The state of Michigan requires verification of vaccination against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and chicken pox in order for students to enroll in kindergarten. Due to health concerns voiced by watchdog groups and a sizable segment of Michiganders, the state offers a philosophical exemption for parents looking to opt out of vaccines.

In January 2015, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) enacted a rule change. In order to obtain the usual waiver, parents need to schedule a brief (about 15-30 minute) meeting with a local health care worker to be informed about the benefits of vaccinations and then sign an additional waiver indicating they understand they are putting children at risk.

The two camps

Since the enactment of the MDHHS’ new rule, the number of philosophical exemptions granted has dropped by over 35 percent, prompting those with strong libertarian streaks to cry foul.  

Colbeck released a statement arguing that “It was never the intention of the Legislature to see a vaccination opt-out procedure put into place that essentially mandates that parents have to take time off of work to meet with specific people, view videos, or sign inflammatory forms to exert a right they should be able to exercise more simply.” 

Proponents of vaccines, however, stand by this rule as a means to bolster Michigan’s health.

Eden Wells, chief medical executive of the MDHHS, argues that “Michigan’s low immunization rates threaten the health of all residents,” referencing the common justification for vaccines — herd immunity. She believes this rule has helped Michigan become safer, as philosophical exemptions have declined under it.

Does it really matter?

Major voices in local media have posed an insightful question about this bill: When the public health is directly affected by the decision to vaccinate, is it too much to ask parents to sit down for a 15-minute consultation to get both sides of the issue?

While this is an excellent question — one that ought to be asked — there is a better one begging to be answered.

The MDHHS rule, which Colbeck’s legislation would be replacing, makes a questionable assumption: that parents who opt out of vaccinations have not educated themselves fully on the topic. The better question to ask would be, “Are parents who currently vaccinate their children fully informed on the issue?”

If the goal is to ensure that parents are informed about both sides of the issue, what about parents who never take the time to investigate the alleged potential side effects of vaccines? If we are going to mandate that parents who opt out should spend 15 minutes to do something they could already do for themselves, why not be fair and impartial by requiring equivalent measures be taken by the parents who don’t opt out?

When it comes down to it, the government ought to be fair and equitable in its policies. It should either require both groups of parents to hear both sides or require neither — as Colbeck’s bill does.