End non-medical exemptions to school vaccination requirements

A child with a rash caused by the measles virus.
A child with a rash caused by the measles virus.
Phichet Chaiyabin/Shutterstock
A child with a rash caused by the measles virus.

End non-medical exemptions to school vaccination requirements

New York should protect children with compromised immune systems.
February 24, 2019

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States 19 years ago, but it is now making an ugly comeback and threatening the health of children in schools in New York. As of Feb. 20, there are 138 confirmed cases of measles in Rockland County, 73 confirmed cases in Brooklyn and four confirmed cases in Monroe County. Measles outbreaks nationwide have reignited the debate on vaccination requirements, and New York should seize this opportunity to become the fourth state to ban non-medical exemptions from school vaccination requirements. We cannot wait until somebody dies before taking action.

One of the most important reasons to end non-medical exemptions is to protect children who are medically unable to become vaccinated, such as those who are too young or who are immuno-compromised from diseases like childhood leukemia or HIV/AIDS. While much of the focus from proponents of non-medical exemptions has been on a parent’s right to not vaccinate their child, we should instead be focusing on a parent’s right to have their child not die from preventable diseases such as measles. Many schools have adopted rules which restrict what types of food kids are allowed to bring for lunch on the basis of protecting students with severe allergies. Why should we treat vaccines any differently?

The rise in anti-vaccination sentiment has corresponded with a startling rise in denial of established science. Beyond one (now debunked) study which attempted to link autism with vaccines, there is an overwhelming body of evidence which shows that vaccines are both safe and effective. Prior to the development of a measles vaccine in 1963, there were 2.6 million deaths from measles worldwide per year. That number fell to 110,000 in 2017. Similar results have been seen with polio as the number of paralytic polio cases in the United States fell from over 21,000 in 1952 to just 61 in 1965. The World Health Organization estimates that 10 million lives have been saved globally through expanded vaccination programs over just one five-year period (2010-2015). The data and immunological science cannot be clearer: Vaccines work.

Scientific experts in virology and immunology measure progress towards the elimination of diseases through the rate of secondary infections. This concept is the underpinning principal of “herd immunity,” and experts recommend a vaccination threshold of around 93-95 percent in any given population. More people with immunity to measles means that fewer people are available to incubate and spread the virus. From 2000 to 2017, the percentage of children globally who have received their first dose of measles vaccination rose from 72 percent to 85 percent and the measles death rate declined by 80 percent.

The importance of herd immunity is proved by data emerging from Clark County, Washington, where there are 62 confirmed cases of measles since Jan. 1 and only 78 percent of school-age children have had both recommended doses of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Of the confirmed cases in Rockland County, 81.5 percent did not receive any MMR vaccination. Low vaccination rates provide a rich environment for the measles virus to replicate and spread, putting our communities at risk.

Proponents of non-medical exemptions to school vaccine requirements will say they are protected by the First Amendment’s free speech and free religion protections. This is essentially the same argument that was put forth by Hobby Lobby and others who sought to avoid insurance requirements to cover contraceptive products. New York state clearly rejected this argument in January, as we passed laws such as the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act and the Boss Bill. First Amendment rights of one parent should not be allowed to endanger the life and health of other parents’ innocent, vulnerable children. Hypothetically, if parents claimed that their religion instructs them to send their kids to school carrying a loaded weapon, we wouldn’t allow them to into public schools. For a child with a compromised immune system, measles can be as dangerous as a gun.

Parents with a true and honest religious prohibition on vaccines are entitled to not vaccinate. However, they should not be entitled to put other people’s children at risk by enrolling their unvaccinated child in school.

We cannot allow a subversion of science and medicine to dictate public health policy. I understand wanting to know what is being put into our children’s bodies. I understand having a healthy skepticism of huge pharmaceutical corporations and how they make their money. But these are not worth letting children die from preventable, painful diseases. New York should end non-medical exemptions once and for all.

Jeffrey Dinowitz
is a member of the New York state Assembly from the 81st District, which covers the Northwest Bronx.
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