BIG RAPIDS — As of Jan. 1, parents and guardians are no longer able to opt their children out of immunizations without a waiver from the health department.

The Michigan Department of Community Health approved changes to the administrative rules for schools and childcare centers.

The changes require parents or guardians of children who choose to sign a non-medical waiver to receive education on the benefits of immunization from the county health department first.

According to the Department of Community Health, a non-medical waiver is a parent or guardian’s written statement of their objection to a particular immunization.

“This is something public health does support, it is an effort to reduce the number of waivers being issued related to immunization,” said Linda VanGills, health officer for the Mecosta County Health Department.

According to VanGills, parents or guardians who want to sign a waiver will be directed to the heath department. Schools and childcare centers will only be able to accept certified State of Michigan immunization waiver forms.

Jennifer Smith, the spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Community Health, said before the new regulations, non-medical waivers were available at different locations such as doctor’s offices or schools.

Now, however, parents and guardians will only be able to pick up and sign certified non-medical waivers from the health department.

“We want to encourage informed decisions on immunizations,” Smith said. “These new rules provide education on subjects such as the risks of not immunizing and the benefits of doing so.”

According to the Smith, Michigan has one of the highest waiver rates in the country, which leaves communities vulnerable to different diseases.

“Waiver rates vary by county in Michigan from 1.3 percent to 20.7 percent,” she said. “Ten counties have already been following the new immunization regulations and the average waiver rate for those counties was 3.3 percent.”

The immunization waiver rate for Mecosta County is 8.7 percent.

“We want people to make informed decisions for their children,” Smith said. “We know that immunizations are safe and that they are the best tool to protect families and the community.”

For more information, call the Mecosta County Health Department at (231)-592-0130.