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Health Department move reflects frustration over Oklahoma vaccine law

How emotional is the issue of childhood vaccinations? Consider that in Connecticut last month, a legislative hearing on a bill to ban religious exemptions to mandatory immunizations lasted 21 hours as opponents flooded the statehouse. The bill survived the committee, but final approval is hardly a given.

Meantime, voters in Maine this week resoundingly rejected an effort to repeal a state law passed last year that eliminates non-medical vaccine exemptions for school kids. The new law is to take effect in 2021 — barring another challenge.

Oklahoma’s lawmakers have opted to stay out of the fight, by blunting efforts in recent years to reform the state’s vaccination laws. This has prompted the state Health Department to pursue modifying opt-out rules.

In Oklahoma, parents may cite medical, religious, personal or philosophical reasons for not getting their child vaccinated. Attempts to remove the personal exemption have failed, with lawmakers saying they don’t want to infringe on parental rights.

Unfortunately, a growing number of parents are opting out of immunizing their child against diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella. For the 2018-19 school year, the exemption rate among kindergarteners was 2.6%, according to the Health Department. It was 2.2% the year before and 1.9% in 2016-17.

The agency approved 5,082 approved vaccination exemptions last year, comprising all three categories. That compared with about half as many, 2,417, in 2014.

Thus, a Health Department subcommittee is proposing to rules changes. One would require parents who seek to opt out for religious or personal reasons to first attend a vaccine education briefing at their local health department. The other change would have the exemption expire after sixth grade, with the parent having to repeat the exemption request process at that time.

Dr. Fauzia Khan, the Health Department’s director of immunization services, says the change “would allow Oklahoma State Department of Health an opportunity to provide factual information to parents to ensure they are able to make an informed decision regarding the choice to immunize their child.”

That’s a laudable goal — too much misinformation about vaccines is available with the click of a mouse. However, as one opponent of the proposed rules said this week, they’re the work of “an appointed and unelected bureaucratic body that wishes to circumvent the process …”

Any rules changes would need to be approved by the commissioner of health, the Legislature and the governor. Given lawmakers’ reluctance to act on this issue, final approval isn’t a sure thing.

The Oklahoman is a firm believer that Oklahoma’s broad immunization law puts children at risk and needs to be strengthened. It’s a sad commentary that health experts are so frustrated by the inertia they’ve witnessed that they feel the need to try to take matters into their own hands.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›