As a pediatric resident, I can attest to the effects of children who have not been vaccinated, and the consequences are devastating. Given the success of vaccines over the past decades, it is not surprising that the public is unaware of how devastating vaccine-preventable diseases can be since we don’t see many of them anymore – or at least not until parents started to refuse to have their children vaccinated. A look back into not-so-distant history is enough to remind us of the life-changing effects of disease like polio, measles, and haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). New parents have not seen these diseases in their lifetimes. However, today Vermont’s immunization rates have declined, in part because of the use of the “philosophical exemption,” and vaccine-preventable illnesses not seen for decades are gaining traction in our local communities.
The University of Vermont pediatric residency program has a strong history of advocating for children in the community through support of issues that include the following: reducing the prevalence of food insecurity, ensuring all children have a medical home, decreasing the incidence of obesity, and promoting swim safety for refugee populations, to name a few. In addition, few residency programs offer a legislative curriculum. UVM does this for its residents because in a small, welcoming state like Vermont, our pediatricians can make a big impact on public health policies that will save lives. As part of our residency program, on a sunny day this past March, ten UVM pediatric residents made their first journey to the capitol to meet and discuss health policy with legislators.
For many of us, this was our first experience in the state house, so we had to start from the basics. Over the past few months we had a series of guest speakers give lectures discussing how a bill is passed, how to testify in a public hearing, and how to understand the complexities of current issues.
Next, we chose our platform. Bill S.199 would eliminate a parent’s right to claim
a philosophical opposition to vaccines and to exempt their children from receiving required vaccines before enrolling in daycare or public school. Those opposed to this bill have framed it as a parental rights issue; however, their choice puts others at risk including children who have been vaccinated (since vaccines are not always 100% effective), and also those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
Walking into the entrance of the State House, I was struck by the accessibility of this building to its citizens. As one of the only citizen-based congresses in the country, Vermont’s legislators have a pulse on their constituents. We met with many members of the House Health Care Committee who were considering S.199, who shared their need (and the public’s need) for clarifying what the science really says about vaccination. The hype stirred up about the safety of vaccines has taken an unfortunate toll on public knowledge of their safety, but scientific data has overwhelmingly demonstrated that vaccines are safe and effective at saving lives. Committee members were gracious and open to speaking with the residents. Later we observed proceedings on the House floor and had a tour of the State House.
At the end of the day, we felt our message was heard; however, we realized that we have a lot of work ahead of us. We saw first-hand how effective it is to speak in person to our legislators and will continue to advocate for the health of Vermont’s children.
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Editor’s Note: Please let your legislators know how important it is that children are vaccinated and ask them to support S.199, by calling 802-828-2228 or going to www.leg.state.vt.us and finding your legislator’s e-mail address.