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Mother Refuses to Sign ‘Inaccurate’ Vaccine Exemption Forms

  • Naomi Malik, a chiropractor in Woodstock, Vt., washes potatoes while talking with her children Remy, 11, and Vasco, 8, at their home on Oct. 13, 2017. Malik says her kids may be barred from Woodstock Elementary because of her refusal to sign what she says are scientifically inaccurate forms accompanying an application for a religious vaccine exemption. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, October 14, 2017

Woodstock — A Woodstock chiropractor says her children may soon be barred from school because of her refusal to sign forms accompanying a vaccination exemption request that she believes are scientifically inaccurate.

Naomi Malik this month received word from Woodstock school officials that her 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter will no longer be able to attend Woodstock Elementary School starting on Tuesday.

The notice came in response to her questions about informational materials that she was required to read and sign in order to receive a religious exemption from the state-mandated vaccination schedule, she said.

“I feel like I’m being backed into a corner. I’m being bullied,” Malik said in an interview on Friday. “I don’t follow the recommended (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) schedule for my children, but that’s not what this is about.”

Titled “Parent Education Required for Completion of Vermont’s Religious Exemption Form,” the document prepared by the Vermont Department of Health explains why officials are confident that vaccines’ overall benefit to public health outweighs the risk of minor side effects.

“The risk of side effects from a vaccine is far lower than the risk of complications from a vaccine-preventable disease,” the state documents say.

The informational handout cites research from the National Academy of Medicine, a nongovernment health nonprofit formerly known as the Institute of Medicine, as well as the CDC.

It adds later, “When most of the people in a community are vaccinated, there is less opportunity for a disease to enter the population and make people sick.”

Malik told state officials earlier this fall that she took issue with some of the document’s sourcing, and therefore could not sign a form saying that she understood it to be “evidence-based.”

“I am currently unable, in good conscience, to sign an exemption form acknowledging that I have read evidence-based material,” she said in a September letter to state officials that she believes provoked the threat to bar her children.

In her letter, Malik requested that state officials answer her concerns about the informational document.

Instead, she said, school officials sent her a “Notice of Exclusion” that says her children, Vasco and Remy, will be kept out of school unless she vaccinates them or takes the steps to obtain a valid exemption.

Superintendent Mary Beth Banios, who is listed as the administrative contact on the exclusion notice, declined to comment and referred a reporter to the health department on Friday.

Shaun Pickett, the interim principal at Woodstock Elementary, said he could not speak to individual cases, but said he and other school officials were obligated by law to make sure that children either followed vaccination schedules or obtained legitimate exemptions.

“In my mind it’s the law, and it’s not up to me to allow someone not to follow the law and put every other child in the building at risk,” he said by phone on Friday.

Pickett declined to address the medical reasons for Vermont’s immunization regulations, saying medical professionals were better equipped to answer.

Immunization officials at the Department of Health were not available for comment on Friday.

Regulations that can exclude unvaccinated children from school — especially during an outbreak of a communicable disease — are common across the United States, with similar rules in place in New Hampshire, Maine and many other states.

In Reading, Pa., new state immunization rules last month resulted in the barring of about 200 unvaccinated students from school, according to the Reading Eagle, a local newspaper. That represents about 1 percent of the student body of the Reading School District.

Last October, a chickenpox outbreak in Yarmouth, Maine, spurred school officials to temporarily exclude five children who hadn’t been immunized, according to the Portland Press Herald.

In 2015, former Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, signed into law a bill removing residents’ ability to claim a “philosophical” exemption from vaccination, leaving medical and religious exemptions as options for parents wishing to avoid shots for their school-aged children.

The change in the law took place only after a highly publicized discussion in the state Legislature marked by intense opposition from vaccine activists.

Pickett, the Woodstock Elementary principal, said the “vast majority” of children and parents follow the immunization schedule. The school nurse’s website says that 89.2 percent of students are fully immunized.

Nevertheless, he said, small numbers of parents with strong feelings about vaccines still cause administrators considerable difficulty in enforcing state immunization regulations.

“There are some holdouts, and those holdouts feel very strongly about it,” he said. “They will go to great lengths to avoid the process. So it becomes a cat-and-mouse game for the school. (It) takes quite a bit of time from school nurses and administrators to follow up.”

Pickett, who served in Hartland, South Royalton and Roxbury schools before coming to Woodstock last week, said he had played cat-and-mouse with parents in each of those communities.

The interim principal said his calls to parents often were screened and not picked up, which required him to send registered letters. Those sometimes go unanswered or are met with unsubstantiated excuses, he said, and in several cases he has had to threaten to remove a child from school.

Pickett said he had never been forced to follow through on those warnings, however.

Malik on Friday said she likely would end up signing the form because of the possible effect on her children of being pulled out of school.

“It’s a big disruption to their lives for me to be locked in this battle with the Department of Health,” she said, adding later, “They want to stay in school, for sure.”

Malik practices chiropractic in Woodstock with her husband, Michael, according to their business website. Malik earned an undergraduate degree in cell and molecular biology at the University of Maine and both husband and wife later studied at Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa.

She also is a member of the activist group Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice, which in the wake of her dispute with the state has filed a petition with state agencies asking that they review the scientific evidence behind their informational materials.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

Correction

Woodstock school officials this month gave Naomi Malik a deadline to sign vaccine exemption forms prepared by the Vermont Department of Health or have her children removed from school. An earlier version of this story misstated who imposed the deadline.