MI health officials discuss new vaccine waiver rules

Sep 18, 2015

Low vaccination rates have been linked to outbreaks of measles and whooping cough last year in several Michigan counties. That prompted the state to require parents to talk to a health professional before seeking a so-called “philosophical” exemption. So, is it working? Current State speaks with Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail and Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

For a long-time, measles and whooping cough seemed as far gone as typewriters and telegrams. But in recent years, these highly contagious diseases have made a comeback. Doctors say that’s due in large part to more parents opting out of vaccinating their kids.

Outbreaks of measles and whooping cough in Michigan in recent years prompted state officials to look at ways to boost the state’s immunization rates. Starting this fall, parents who want a non-medical immunization waiver will have to first meet with a county health official.

Current State talks about the waiver rules with Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail and Dr. Eden Wells, Chief Medical Executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.


Why did DHHS decide this new requirement for parents was the best way to boost immunization rates?


 This was actually a decision that was really made by a vast number of stakeholders, not just the Department of Health and Human Services. We had pediatricians, public health nurses, health care providers across the state all who met together to work and try to figure out ways to improve the vaccine waiver problem. And what the decision is that having these discussions at the local health department would ultimately be the best decision. And not take away the right of the parent, as some other states are considering doing. But to really say, you have this right, but let’s sit down and make sure everybody, no matter what county you live in, has the same type of good information to make that decision with.

On whether or not these information sessions are convincing skeptical parents

We’ve had about 281 of these sessions in our department so far this year, and five people have changed their minds and gotten vaccinated. There's some other kind of nuances with what's going on related to the whole vaccination issue that even though that number is small, we do think that this rule is going to drastically change the waiver rates. And that's what I would refer to as what we call “convenience waivers.” So we have a number of people, because the school districts were handling the waivers rather than the health department, that would opt for a philosophical waiver really for convenience purposes. 

 They arrive at school, they suddenly discover, “I have to have this immunization thing.” They don't have it. Their child isn’t up-to-date, they don't they don't philosophically oppose it nor do they have a religious opposition. But the convenience of their lives right then is, “I've got to leave and go have a doctor’s appointment.” Or the school hands me a piece of paper and says, “Well, you can sign this waiver.” So they sign this waiver and maybe eventually get to the immunizations anyway. What this does is say, if you're going to waive your immunizations, you're still going to have to go and have an appointment. It’s either going to be that appointment for the immunizations or it’s going to be this appointment with the health department for education. So it's no longer convenient either way. And so, those folks that were opting for waivers really just more out of convenience purposes, that's going to go away, and that's what where we think we’re really going to see a drastic change over time in the waivers.

On discussion of mandatory vaccines during the Republican presidential debate


 There was some disappointing information that I felt was portrayed by some of these candidates, one of them may be one of our future leaders. I think it just represents some of the misinformation. There was again an allusion that one candidate made the stated autism was a potential risk for vaccines. Time and time again multiple Institute of Medicine reports and investigations have shown that this is not the case. 

 So, I think there is a need to educate our political candidates and our politicians about the recent and the good science behind this. But I do think that most of our legislators who become involved in health policy have been very interested in meeting and working with public health. Nobody wants to see children become ill. Nobody also at the same time wants to see parents rescind their rights to make those decisions. There are states that are making laws right across the board that are not allowing anything other than medical waivers, and recently California did that. We are allowing this right, but we want the education to come with that.