Health officials in Grant County, Wis., are concerned about outbreaks of preventable illnesses making headlines across the country. State vaccination exemptions leave southwest Wisconsin vulnerable, they believe.
Yet the Grant County Board of Supervisors stifled efforts to state those concerns to lawmakers in Madison.
The concern stems from a state exemption to mandatory vaccination laws. While all states give waivers for children with medical reasons to avoid vaccinations, and most allow for religious objections, Wisconsin is one of just 15 states that grants exemptions for those who object to immunizations because of personal, moral or other beliefs.
That has resulted in a direct hit to Grant County’s resilience to preventable diseases. Between 2013 and 2018, Grant County saw the number of cases of vaccine-preventable diseases nearly triple — from 26 cases to 76. Only 52% of Grant County children have received the complete series of recommended vaccines by age 2, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
For communities to maintain resiliency to measles, for example, the World Health Organization recommends a vaccination rate of 95%.
The results are showing up in schools. According to reporting by The Wall Street Journal, numerous Wisconsin schools fall well below the 95% benchmark. The research shows a measles vaccination rate of 73% at Potosi Elementary School, 71% at St. Rose of Lima, 86% at Cassville Elementary and 89% at Southwestern.
It’s not surprising, then, that Grant County Board of Health members called for a resolution asking state lawmakers to end the practice of issuing waivers for mandatory school and day care immunizations on the basis of personal conviction.
Rather than following the health board’s lead and sending that message to Madison, Grant County supervisors declined to act on the resolution, citing a reticence to interfere with personal rights.
“I’ve always been against the government taking more and more of our individual rights away from us,” said Supervisor Mark Stead. “The more power you’re giving the government it becomes communistic, and that’s something I’ve been taught at an early age to be against, is communism, when the government thinks they know more than individuals and takes over everything.”
When government takes steps to prevent the spread of life-threatening illness to children, that’s not communism. That’s good governance.
When the government requires seat belts, helmets on young motorcyclists and sober driving, are those things steps on the slippery slope to communism? Or are they examples of elected officials placing safety ahead of individual freedoms?
Rather than looking at the greater good for constituents, Grant County supervisors are backing the rights of citizens who disregard the rock-solid scientific evidence that immunization stops the spread of disease. That’s difficult to justify to the parent who has a child battling illness that suppresses the immune system. Sending that child to a school with lowered vaccination rates is a dangerous risk and something government should guard against.
The Grant County Board of Health did its job by speaking up about a real health threat in the county. It’s unfortunate county supervisors didn’t support the board’s recommendation and urge lawmakers to address the issue.
Earlier this year, Wisconsin lawmakers introduced a bill that would end the exemption, but it did not receive a committee hearing. Perhaps hearing more voices from communities would help move lawmakers toward change.