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The French philosopher Voltaire wrote a series of letters in the 1830s commenting on several ways that the English were sensibly addressing issues of the age, one of which was smallpox. The English had been exposing infants to small doses of the disease in order to prevent massive outbreaks and catastrophic loss of life. While the French generally considered the English to be “fools and madmen” for “giving their children smallpox to keep them from having it,” Voltaire presented compelling statistics to defend the practice: he claimed that 60% of the population was exposed to smallpox in the 18th century and that a fifth of the population was “killed or disfigured by the disease.” However, “of all those who are inoculated in England, not a one dies, unless he is infirm and condemned to death in other respects; no one is marked with it; no one gets smallpox a second time.” 

In his era, Voltaire blamed the “curates and doctors” for not allowing the practice to take root in France and for ignoring the overwhelming evidence in favor of vaccinations, thus costing thousands of lives. Although he was cautious in expressing criticism of power groups in his society who rallied forceful opposition against scientific practices, he was ultimately imprisoned for his controversial views and for his emphatic defense of evidence over superstition. 

Three centuries later, we are stuck in the same debate, and science is still on the defensive. Colorado’s vaccination rate for kindergarteners dropped from 2017 to 2018, increasing the number of children’s lives at risk by thousands. A bill being considered by the General Assembly this legislative season to make it harder for parents to exempt their children from vaccinations died in the face of stiff political opposition and lack of support from the governor. Colorado remains one of the easiest states for parents to opt out of vaccinating their children and, consequently, has the lowest vaccination rate in the nation. Colorado’s vaccination rate is below what experts consider “herd immunity” -- the threshold needed to be established to avoid a major outbreak.

As an educator, it isn’t my role to administer health advice. However, it is my responsibility to advocate for conditions that lead to better educational outcomes for students, and the relationship between health and education is well established. We know that healthy children learn more in school and that health factors can inhibit school success. 

For that reason, the Roaring Fork Schools have been working in partnership with local health providers to increase access to comprehensive medical, mental, and dental health services for our students. We have school-based health centers in Basalt and Carbondale and are working to expand those services to Glenwood Springs. We have revised our sports physical forms to encourage a thorough well-child check rather than a simple clearance to play, knowing that sports physicals are the only contact that some students ever have with a medical provider. We would like all students, not just athletes, to have a regular well-child exam annually. 

We regularly administer the Colorado Heathy Kids Survey to identify early warning signs of risky and health-threatening adolescent behaviors so that we can intervene with early education and prevention. We have worked with community agencies to provide increased access to mental health services and to combat substance use and addiction. We train all of our teachers in identifying signs of suicidality. And we have family liaisons in every school to help all families remove barriers to, and gain access to, healthcare and other vital services.

We are grateful to many organizations and government agencies -- too many to name -- for partnering to provide or underwrite health services, not only because health is an important end in itself, but because we know that healthy children miss less school and that children learn more when they are in school. 

Summer is a good time to get caught up on well-child exams and vaccinations. I would love to see every child return to school in August having received an annual well-child exam and for every child who doesn’t have a legitimate, medical exemption to be vaccinated. If cost is a barrier for you or a child you know to getting access to health services, you can contact our Family Resource Center for help in finding affordable care.

Voltaire quipped, “Common sense is not so common.” Keeping our children healthy is just common sense, and providing them health services should be more common.




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