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Montana wants freedom from disease

by Sophia Newcomer
| March 19, 2023 12:00 AM

State lawmakers are considering two bills that would put at risk the lives of the most vulnerable Montanans. Bills moving forward in both the Montana House and Senate would allow parents to send an unvaccinated child to a daycare or school simply with a signed letter saying they have a personal objection to the vaccination.

If either SB450 or HB715 becomes law, Montana will become home to one of the nation’s most lax policies when it comes to bypassing school vaccinations. Montana already allows parents to opt out of school vaccinations for medical and religious reasons. Adding a so-called personal-belief exemption is unnecessary, dangerous and expensive.

When there are vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, kids miss school and parents can’t go to work. Caring for infected patients causes a strain on already limited medical and hospital resources. When school outbreaks spread into communities, the elderly, babies who are too young to be vaccinated, and individuals who are immunocompromised–such as people going through cancer treatment – are most harmed. Along with these societal costs, taxpayers shoulder financial costs. An analysis of measles outbreaks in the U.S. in 2011 found the costs to local health departments was up to $985,000 per outbreak.

In November, a large measles outbreak stemming from unvaccinated children attending a daycare near Columbus, Ohio, led to 36 hospitalizations. Seventeen children stricken with measles were less than one year old and too young to be vaccinated. Ohio is one of the few states that allow a personal-belief exemption to vaccination requirements for attending daycares and schools.

Measles is highly transmissible and potentially deadly and can cause severe illness, including brain swelling leading to deafness and other permanent disabilities in children. Due to outbreaks like this one, the number of states allowing exemptions has actually declined in recent years.

Researchers have thoroughly studied the impacts of lenient vaccine exemption policies like HB715 and SB450 in other states. When states make it easier for parents to get an exemption from child care or school vaccinations, the use of exemptions increases. When exemptions increase, vaccination rates fall. And when vaccination rates fall, community protection against vaccine-preventable diseases is weakened. With higher numbers of unvaccinated infants and children, there are more opportunities for diseases such as measles and pertussis to enter daycares and schools, and then spread into communities.

Most Montanans support vaccination. Montana Families for Vaccines is a grassroots network of Montanans who are standing up for fact-based immunization policy to keep our kids and communities safe. Join them in calling on Montana’s legislators to vote no on HB715 and SB450.

Dr. Sophia Newcomer is an associate professor at the University of Montana.