Seeking ‘Health Freedom,’ Some Parents Relocate To Idaho For Its Looser Vaccine Laws

Originally published on February 11, 2020 4:47 pm

At a public hearing last year in Boise, Idaho, recent transplant Alicia Peterson urged lawmakers not to tighten vaccine requirements. 

"I, this last year, ripped my whole family from the only home I've ever known, which was California, for these very reasons," Peterson said. "I left for health freedom."

According to the Idaho Statesman, Peterson isn't alone. An investigation by the newspaper found about two dozen others who said "they moved to Idaho because of the state's limited regulation—specifically, the ease of getting a vaccine exemption for schoolchildren."

As the Idaho Statesman reports, some called themselves "refugees" of states like California and Washington, where immunization rules have recently become stricter.

"The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare strongly supports immunization as one of the easiest and most effective tools in preventing serious vaccine-preventable diseases," Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator for Idaho's Division of Public Health, said in a statement. "We believe immunization requirements for children attending Idaho schools is the most consistent and effective policy to ensure protection against those diseases. We also respect a parent's right to exempt their children from school immunization requirements."

Idaho, Colorado and Utah allow exemptions for a broader range of reasons than most states, with categories for medical, religious and personal exemptions.

"I hadn't even really thought about it until I received a couple of calls," said Rich Lakin, the immunization program manager at the Utah Department of Health. The calls came from New York and California.

"I talked to them about the way that you can get exemptions here in Utah and they said it was much more enticing than what's happened in their state," Lakin said. "And they had thought about leaving their states so that they could claim an exemption for their children."

A spokesperson for the Colorado's public health department said staff there had not encountered the issue.

Researchers have found that nationally, only about 1 to 2 percent of parents refuse all vaccines. But in small communities and schools, one family's choice can make a difference when it comes to controlling outbreaks of infectious disease like measles.

A number of bills related to immunization have already been introduced across the region. Among them, a pair of bills introduced in Idaho and Colorado aim to prevent employers from requiring their employees to be immunized. And in Colorado, there's an effort underway to follow in Utah's steps by creating an online course on vaccines for parents aiming to opt out of vaccinating their children for religious or personal reasons.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center For the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

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