Government & Politics

Do kids who aren’t vaccinated face discrimination? This Missouri lawmaker thinks so

Missouri legislators held a hearing Wednesday on a bill that would prevent discrimination against kids who aren't vaccinated. School and health groups want more information about whether it would affect their ability to separate kids who aren't immunized from others to prevent the spread of disease.
Missouri legislators held a hearing Wednesday on a bill that would prevent discrimination against kids who aren't vaccinated. School and health groups want more information about whether it would affect their ability to separate kids who aren't immunized from others to prevent the spread of disease. File photo

Missouri Rep. Lynn Morris thinks kids who haven't been vaccinated are being discriminated against. Not a lot of kids, but some, and he's introduced a bill to stop it.

"What I find is, throughout the state and throughout southwest Missouri, some places it’s easy (to not be vaccinated) and some places it’s extremely hard," said Morris, R-Nixa. "Some of the parents think they’re being subjected to things they shouldn’t be subjected to. ... I don’t think this is a high number of people, but it’s something that caught my eye, and I talked to some of the parents.”

Missouri lawmakers held a hearing Wednesday on House Bill 1560.

In a phone interview two hours before that hearing began, Morris said he wasn't certain about several potential effects of the bill. He said he didn't know whether it would prevent doctors from barring families who don't vaccinate from their practices, although he thought that would be a good idea.

He also wasn't sure whether the bill would overturn current state law that says when there has been an exposure to an infectious disease, schools should exclude from classes kids who haven't been vaccinated, as two Kansas City schools have done during an ongoing measles outbreak.

Susan Goldammer, a staff attorney for the Missouri School Board Association, said the organization would like some clarification about the bill.

The bill specifically applies to families who have exercised one of the two types of exemptions, medical and religious, from the state's school-based vaccine requirements. The medical exemption requires a letter from a licensed physician. The religious exemption requires only a note from parents.

Goldammer said she's not aware of any situation where schools treat kids who aren't vaccinated any differently from those who are, except for when they have to enact the state exclusion policy during a disease outbreak.

In an email, Goldammer said the school board association is "very curious as to the source and intent of this proposed language. Obviously, we would recommend clarification of the language if even the bill sponsor is not sure what it addresses."

The bill also explicitly says that "no child shall be discriminated against by any health care provider" for not being immunized if they have one of those exemptions.

Morris said he wasn't certain whether that would prevent pediatricians from barring unvaccinated kids from their practices.

“I’d like for it to be that way because I really don’t think a doctor should discharge a patient and say, 'You have to go somewhere else because you don’t immunize,' ” Morris said.

Christopher Harrison, a Kansas City physician and professor of pediatrics, said the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends doctors try to keep vaccine-resistant families in their practices and "eventually bring those people back into the fold so they appreciate and want to have their children vaccinated."

But Harrison said some doctors have legitimate concerns about people who choose not to be immunized bringing preventable diseases into their offices and exposing other patients who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons.

“Some clinicians do it to protect their other patients," Harrison said. "There are others that say, 'If they don’t trust me enough to take my recommendations on immunization, then we don’t have a patient-clinician relationship that is workable and they need to go find another clinician.' ”

Morris said as a pharmacist he's concerned that children on the regular immunization schedule receive too many vaccines before they turn 3 years old and, in general, get too many at the same time.

Morris has been disciplined multiple times by the Missouri Board of Pharmacy for improperly dispensing prescription drugs, most recently in 2015, when his license was put on probation.

Harrison said years of testing has proven that the vaccine schedule adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and numerous medical associations is safe and delaying vaccines is not.

“To put off vaccines opens the window of vulnerability to be longer for any given child,” Harrison said. “Measles is in our community and causing quite a bit of trouble. Whooping cough has never left our community and circulates frequently. We’ve had an outbreak of mumps not that long ago."

The Kansas City area is dealing with two measles outbreaks. One began in a Johnson County day care with an infant too young to be vaccinated; it has infected at least 22 people in three Kansas counties. The other started when an unvaccinated traveler brought measles back from abroad; it has infected 13 people on the Missouri side of the metro.

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