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One State's Stealth Tactic To Increase Vaccination Rates

In the midst of the hyper-partisanship that permeates public discourse these days, even children's health is no longer sacred. That's because, encouraged by widely discredited theories that vaccinations are unnecessary or even dangerous, parents across the country are increasingly emboldened to ignore medical professionals' fervent recommendations for them to ensure that kids are immunized against highly contagious and sometimes deadly diseases. So, states are getting parents to vaccinate their kids using a simple yet stealthy move: inconvenience. By making the process of securing a vaccination waiver deliberately cumbersome, some states aim to prevent outbreaks of communicable illnesses like whooping cough.

In fact, it was when one charter school in Traverse City, Michigan saw about two dozen cases of the sickness, as well as several instances of measles, three years ago that the state quickly and quietly acted to address the danger. Effective Jan. 1, 2015, parents seeking a waiver to exempt their children from being vaccinated are now required to complete two tasks in order to obtain it, according to First, parents must attend a mandatory discussion with a local health worker about the decision and, afterward, they have to sign a form acknowledging that the decision puts their own children and others at risk.

"The idea was to make the process more burdensome," Michigan State University health policy specialist Mark Largent told STAT News. "Research has shown that if you make it more inconvenient to apply for a waiver, fewer people get them."

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Previously, some counties in the state had made it possible to complete the waiver process over the phone or even online. But after the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules approved the new regulations, that was no longer possible — and the positive effects were soon evident. Once the state with the unhappy distinction of the fourth-highest rate of unvaccinated kindergarteners in the country, Michigan is now firmly in the middle of the list when it comes to unvaccinated rates, STAT News reported.

Almost all states — including Michigan — allow religious exemptions for vaccines. Michigan is also still one of the 18 states that will grant parents "philosophical exemptions" to excuse their kids from getting the required vaccines based on personal or moral beliefs. But just one year after implementation of the new regulation, the state had issued 35 percent fewer waivers, a development easily attributable to the regulation.

Seeking similar results, some states make waiver forms unnecessarily complicated to fill out or even require parents to get them notarized. All of this is done in the hope that the inconvenience this presents will outweigh parents' objections based on the debunked belief that vaccines cause autism, among other concerns that doctors reject.

Michigan's strategy is just a more extreme version of these tactics. And the state recently launched an education campaign that effectively complements the effort. The "I Vaccinate" campaign encompasses TV and public service ads to educated parents about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and offers a website with comprehensive information on the subject. There, parents can learn about vaccine issues like "herd immunity," or the fact that a "vaccinated community helps to protect those who are not vaccinated."

Because it's hard to ignore the benefits of vaccinations when you're armed with the facts. Michigan clearly subscribes to the idea that the more you know, the better your decisions. And if parents still don't want their kids vaccinated when they know the facts, the process to get that exemption is downright annoying by design.