Michigan’s vaccination waiver rate drops after rule change

Fewer Michigan schoolchildren are getting immunization waivers, a drop that state health officials attribute to a year-old rule that requires parents to first talk with a local health department about the risks of not being vaccinated.

Preliminary numbers released by the state Thursday show nearly 8,000 fewer waivers from the last school year, a 41 percent decline from about 19,100 to 11,200. The kindergarten waiver rate — which was the country’s sixth-highest in the 2014-15 academic year — is down to 3.3 percent from 5.2 percent. The percentage of seventh-graders receiving exemptions is 2.8 percent, a decrease from 4.5 percent.

The new rule, sought by Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration and approved by lawmakers, took effect last January and was issued amid a concerning rise in whooping cough and measles cases.

It requires parents who want a nonmedical waiver to first be educated by a local health department about the risks of not receiving vaccines and the benefits of vaccination to their child and community. Parents previously could get a philosophical or religious waiver without meeting with a health official.

“By ensuring that parents have the opportunity to address and discuss concerns with their local health department, we’re providing parents with knowledge they can use when making a decision about vaccinating their child,” Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement.

Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive, said the improvement in vaccination coverage rates means more children are being protected from outbreaks and preventable diseases.

All kindergarteners, seventh-graders and students new to a district must be up to date on certain immunizations or have a waiver.

The medical community praised the news and said legislators should not consider rescinding the change. Bills introduced last month would overturn the rule and also prohibit local health departments from keeping unvaccinated students from school except in the case of an epidemic.

“Michigan’s recent immunization waiver reforms have made a real difference for thousands of kids but (the bills) threaten that progress,” said Marcus Cheatham, president of the Michigan Association of Public Health.

But the sponsor of the legislation, Republican Rep. Tom Hooker of Byron Center, said the state health department had no legal authority to implement the rule and contended that waiver rates already were dropping before the change.

“If you want to change the law, the process is through the Legislature and the governor,” he said.

Despite Michigan’s high number of waivers, it ranks in the middle of states in the percentage of children who have been immunized. Experts say that is because public health officials are successfully pressuring school districts and child care providers to make sure kids are either vaccinated or have a waiver.

A third category of kids — who do not have all their vaccines but also do not have waivers — is shrinking.  (AP)

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