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The state is taking action intended to make it tougher for parents to send their kids to school without vaccinations.

The change, which takes effect Jan. 1, coincides with news that five Traverse City children have been diagnosed with measles, one of the many diseases that can be prevented by vaccinations. All of the children involved lacked immunizations.

Under the new policy, families that don't want to immunize their children can no longer get a waiver simply by mailing in a form, said Sen. John Pappageorge, the Troy Republican. The rule change requires non-medical exemptions to be certified by the local health department, allowing health workers to provide education on the safety of immunizations and potential consequences of going without them.

Without a waiver, proof of immunizations is required in kindergarten and the sixth grade.

The change was made by the state's Joint Commission on Administrative Rules, a bipartisan legislative committee that Pappageorge chairs.

"There's a set of folks that just honestly believe that the decision on an immunization should rest with the family, and another group that doesn't believe in the efficacy of immunizations," Pappageorge said Thursday of parents opposed to the shots.

"Now you have to get information and if you still don't want an immunization you don't have to."

Individuals may still obtain a waiver for any reason; the intent of the new rule is to encourage informed decisions.

States with "informed consent" immunization laws have a greater percentage of kids who are vaccinated, Pappageorge said.

Michigan is among 23 states this year that have reported cases of measles. The state has also experienced an increase in pertussis, also known as whooping cough, which was once thought to be nearly eradicated. A recent outbreak in Traverse City infected children at 14 schools and forced one school to close for a week.

Health officials blame Michigan's immunization rate, which is lower than those in most other states.

"We know that immunization rates in Michigan have stagnated as rates in the rest of the country have gone up," said Jennifer Smith, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Community Health.

"Waiver rates have increased in Michigan over the last three years to nearly 7 percent, with waiver rates reported at 8 percent for sixth-grade students. And Michigan has the fourth highest waiver rate in the country for kindergarten children."

According to Smith, Michigan counties that already had informed consent policies in place prior to the rule change are among those with the lowest percent of families seeking waivers.

Some fear of immunizations stems from a 1998 study that falsely linked vaccinations to autism. British surgeon Andrew Wakefield, the lead researcher who published the study, later recanted the findings, indicating the science was false and not based on fact.

"As a pediatrician, when I talk with a parent who has heard about the study and doesn't want to vaccinate his/her child because of it, they have never heard that the study was retracted or that the researcher was discredited," said Dr. Matt Davis, Michigan's chief medical executive and a professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of Michigan.

"... I know that all parents want to make good decisions for their kids' health. Good decisions are more likely when they're based on accurate information."

kbouffard@detroitnews.com

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