By Phil Silberman

Colorado is one of sixteen states in the US in which parents are allowed, by law, to claim a personal belief, religious, or medical exemption from vaccinating their children. Thirty-two other states allow for religious and medical exemptions and two states, California and Mississippi, allow only for medical exemptions.

Although these rights have been protected by statute in Colorado since 1963, there are constant legislative and administrative attempts to restrict and even eliminate these rights. California, for example, recently passed legislation which eliminates nearly all vaccine choice; every child, every shot, no exceptions, no exemptions. The rare medical exemption can still be obtained, but only under the most stringent official guidelines. We are doing everything we can to prevent that from happening in Colorado.

A Brief History of Vaccine Policy in Colorado

Contrary to official mythology, vaccine refusal did not begin with Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy. Opposition to vaccination has existed as long as the practice of vaccination itself. In 1885 the town of Leicester, England held a demonstration in which 80,000-100,000 citizens protested compulsory vaccinations. The city decided to forgo mandatory smallpox vaccines and developed instead a sanitation and quarantine program to effectively deal with the disease. Leicester’s vaccination rates dropped to below 10%, yet the city’s death rate was one third of the country’s vaccinated population. In 1898 the British government introduced a “conscientious objector” exemption. This clause allowed parents to opt out of compulsory vaccination and is the origination of the term which would later become associated with those who refuse join the army.

On April 19, 1982 NBC aired the Emmy award winning documentary called DPT: Vaccination Roulette. This prime-time broadcast detailed adverse reactions to the DPT shot. The National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) was also founded in that year and launched the vaccine safety and informed consent movement in America. NVIC is the nation’s oldest and largest consumer led organization advocating for vaccine safety and informed consent. In 1985, Harris Coulter and Barbara Loe Fisher, one of the co-founders of NVIC, published the Protecting Vaccine Choice in Colorado unprecedented book, A Shot in the Dark. This was the first book to alert the public about the link between vaccinations and neurological injuries.

The right to vaccine exemptions in Colorado was established in 1963 and reenacted in 1978. Specifically, CRS 25-4-903 states that a parent may obtain an exemption from vaccines by: “…submitting to the student’s school a statement of exemption signed by one parent or guardian … is an adherent to a religious belief whose teachings are opposed to immunizations or… has a personal belief that is opposed to immunization.” For more than 50 years, most parents who chose to opt out of one or more vaccines just signed the back of the State’s “Certificate of Immunization” stating their preference. (The word ‘Immunization’, it must be noted, is inaccurate and, by its very use, is misleading. The act of getting a prescribed shot, or series of shots, does not absolutely confer immunity. The correct term really is ‘Vaccination’, the root word of which is ‘vacca’ which means cow. The original smallpox vaccination was
derived from the pus on the udder of a cow infected with
cowpox.)

Current Vaccine Exemption Policy in Colorado

The vaccine exemption process in Colorado has always been simple, clear, respectful, and, because it was provided directly to the school, protected by the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act (FERPA). For most parents who chose to forego or limit vaccines it was not an act of protest or outrage. It was simply the result of their careful consideration of the potential harm versus the potential benefit for the suggested vaccines. The schedule at that time was much less aggressive than it is today. In 1983, 12 shots containing 34 vaccine doses were recommended. Now in 2017, the schedule has expanded to more than 70 doses by age 18. The decision not to vaccinate in the 1980’s was perhaps met with raised eyebrows of curiosity but seldom the fear and vitriol often encountered today.

In 2007 the passage of what is known as the Immunization (there’s that word again!) Registry Act C.R.S. 25-4-2403, established, among other things, the state’s ability to create “a comprehensive immunization tracking system with immunization information gathered by state and local health officials”. Nowhere in the 2007 law was it proscribed that the registry, now expanded to a multi-million-dollar data tracking system known as the Colorado Immunization Information System (CIIS), be mandatory. As a matter of fact, clear provisions were made in the law to keep the system voluntary, confidential, and not for profit. An often-ignored piece of this legislation states that any notice that provides information on vaccinations shall also inform the recipient of “the option to refuse an immunization on the grounds of medical, religious, or personal belief considerations”.

In 2014, House Bill 1288 was introduced to curtail vaccine exemptions and closely track those who chose to use them. At that time, there were only a few parents in Colorado who were actively involved in the legislative and legal protection of vaccine choice. Others found out about the bill through an action alert from NVIC and came to the Capitol to testify against the bill. Even though their efforts were largely unorganized, the testimony offered was, according to one legislator, “the most coherent and intelligent of any group he had ever seen”. A deeply amended version of bill did pass. But the most onerous part of the bill, which would have forced exempting parents to complete a state and industry sponsored on-line ‘reeducation’ module, was removed. HB 14-1288 , as passed, merely tells schools to have their aggregate vaccine uptake rates available to the public and directs Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE) to promulgate rules surrounding the frequency of submission of exemptions and to work with the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) to develop a joint policy for tracking exemptions.

Late in 2015, CDPHE gave a presentation to school nurses that claimed there was a new law that authorized CDPHE to create an official form. The “new law” they referred to was not even proposed until the introduction of HB 16-1164 in early 2016. Larry Wolk, Director of CDPHE, actually testified that CDPHE had indeed “jumped the gun” and created the new forms before the bill was introduced.

A Closer Look At HB 16-1164

In January of 2016, a State Auditor’s report on the CDPHE and their use of Tobacco Settlement Funds found gross conflicts of interest in the agency and declared that “the department lacks authority to enforce compliance with school entry immunization requirements”. Then in early 2016, CDPHE and their allies finally did introduce HB 16-11647 with the intention of providing CDPHE with the funding and the authority to enforce the use of proposed new online exemption forms. Parents again came together to defeat anti-choice legislation. This time we showed up not just well informed but also unified and organized as the Colorado Coalition for Vaccine Choice (CCVC).

Representative Dan Pabon, the main sponsor of the bill, tried in testimony to portray it as a ‘simple bill’ that merely offered their ‘really quite neat’ online form as a convenient ‘service’ to parents. Parents saw it for what it was: an attempt to circumvent federally protected privacy rights and data mine student information. The bill passed through committee but when an amendment was proposed to make CIIS an opt-in rather than opt-out system, the bill sponsors let the bill die because, in Dan Pabon’s own words, “no one would opt in.”

That summer two pivotal things happened. CCVC was incorporated as an official Colorado non-profit organization and CDPHE continued to pursue their agenda as if 1164 had become law. In July, CDPHE revealed their new website and exemption form to the public, telling school nurses and administrators that parents must use this new system, preferably online. They did not, however, tell parents that the new forms contained compelled speech implicating parents of knowingly endangering their child’s health or that by using the forms parents would forfeit medical privacy rights.

CCVC, along with parents around the state, immediately called attention to the legal and ethical errors of CDPHE’s demands. Attorneys from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) threatened CDPHE with legal action and the agency backed down, rearranging the compelled speech to be slightly less offensive. CDPHE has continued, though, to violate Colorado law by trying to force parents to use this revised version of their unapproved form.

girl getting vaccinated

The Real Way to Exempt Your Child From Vaccines

In spite of HB 1288’s mandate to do so, schools and school districts throughout the state still do not have a joint policy on vaccine exemptions. During the 2016/2017 school year, some followed the law and accepted parents’ written letters of exemption while others kowtowed to CDPHE demands and threatened to exclude students who attempted to use anything but the new exemption form. Clearly, in the absence of a joint policy, CDE and CDPHE are in violation of Colorado law HB – 1288. One aspect of 1288 that has been followed is the careful compilation of vaccine exemption data from schools across the state. The intention of this was ostensibly to provide parents with the information they needed to choose a ‘safe school’ with high vaccine acceptance. Interestingly, when the data is compared with schools’ test scores, the schools with the highest exemption rates also happen to be the schools with the highest performing students.

As the legislative session opened this year there was a clear change in direction. In light of CDPHE’s history of trying to circumvent the law, a bipartisan bill was proposed to clarify that existing statute only requires a written statement of exemption be submitted to a child’s school. The bill, SB17-250, was simple and straight forward: No official exemption form can be mandated. After more than three hours of testimony, the majority of which was in favor of the bill, SB17-250 passed the Senate Health Committee 3-1.

Testimony, and ultimately one’s vote, on any given bill, by rule, is supposed to focus on the content and intent of the bill in discussion. The opposition completely disregarded this rule and turned the discussion into one about their perceived fears of vaccine exemptions. On April 19, because fear tactics do work, the bill failed to pass the Senate floor vote. It is important to note, however, that the CDPHE now has a letter posted on their website stating that, in fact, the parents of Colorado are right and no official form is required.

The rights of parents to decide what does and does not get injected into their children’s bodies should be unassailable. Yet, this innate passion for a mother to protect her babies is under constant and carefully orchestrated assault. Colorado will not go the way of California. We are organized, unified, and deeply informed. Our children are among the healthiest in the country and our adults are among the best educated. Our vaccine exemption rights are well established and, for now, well defended.

Phil Silberman
Phil Silberman is a founding member of the Colorado Coalition for
Vaccine Choice (CCVC). He is a designer, writer, and editor. One of
his current projects is editing The Autism Helpbook, to be
published later this year. He and his wife are passionate about
keeping their daughter healthy and vaccine free. Learn more about
CCVC at https://ccfvc.org/.