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Western Colorado schools have high rates of unvaccinated kids

Flickr user El Alvi

Colorado has one of the country's highest rates of un or undervaccinated school children. And some school districts in Western Colorado have rates five times higher than the state average. The majority of those kids have personal belief exemptions, which allow parents to easily opt out of some or all vaccines.

A bill in the statehouse would try to change that by requiring parents to talk to a doctor or watch an online class before signing a personal belief exemption. But a senate committee cut those requirements out of the bill yesterday.

Senator Irene Aguilar is the bill's senate sponsor. She says the intent behind the original legislation was to present parents with evidence based information.

"As you know, knowing one person that something bad happened to carries a million times more weight than one double-blind, placebo controlled study," she said. "So we'd really like to be sure people have gotten a balanced report on what the risks and benefits are. I think the people who strongly oppose vaccines are perhaps more strongly swayed by some stories they've heard than what the research shows, what the data is."

Theresa Wrangham is the executive director of the National Vaccine Information Center, which promotes vaccine skepticism. She says the education requirement unfairly, and unlawfully, singles out parents who don't want to vaccinate.

"They're not educating everyone, they're educating parents who are making a different choice by assuming they're uneducated and then foisting upon them their own brand of education and approving. That's not education, that's coercion and harassment plain and simple," she says.

Wrangham says vaccines are no different than a medical procedure like a pap smear and shouldn't be treated differently.

"When you go into your doctor for a pap smear,  does your doctor sign off on a piece of paper saying you've heard the risks and benefits and you've decided to say no? It's no different."

Of course, the disease a pap smear is designed to prevent -- cervical cancer -- is not contagious. Diseases like measles and whooping cough are. So while the choice not to vaccinate is a personal one, it affects others.

Still, lawmakers removed the education requirement from the bill after hearing from constituents who shared Wrangham's concerns. Now all that's left is for schools to disclose the percentage of unvaccinated students in their district.

Sundari Kraft is with the pro-vaccine group Vaccinate for Health Schools. She says that in her opinion, the disclosure aspect of the bill is the most important.

"What we know about vaccine exemptions is the statewide number isn't what's important. What is is these clusters of unvaccinated kids. And in certain schools, certain communities, there can be a cluster of unvaccinated children, which absolutely could cause an outbreak vaccine preventable diseases. Which can affect the entire school, the young infants in the families that come to the school that are too young to be vaccinated. It can put immuno-compromised kids at risk. It can put elderly grandparents at risk."

If the bill passes the Senate, parents will have easy access to vaccination rates for every public school in the state. Kraft says that's important for parents to make educated choices about which schools they want to send their kids too.

Statewide, just over 4 percent of kindergartners were not fully vaccinated upon starting public school. But in Western Colorado, some school districts have much higher rates of personal belief exemptions than that.

Here are the rates of students with personal belief exemptions in school districts in KVNF's listening area:

Lake City - 29%

Ouray - 20-25% (the district wouldn't disclose the actual number of students, just the approximate percent of all exempt students, including religious and medical)

Ridgway - 18.3%

Delta - 15% (includes religious and medical exemptions)

West End - 14.2%

Norwood - 7.6%

Montrose - 6.7% (includes religious and medical exemptions)

We'll be airing a special Local Motion on vaccine exemption in Western Colorado on May 20.