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Editorial: End religious vaccine exemptions to boost student health

Assemblyman Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, has jumped into the public health debate about vaccines. A bill he is co-sponsoring would eliminate exemptions from vaccines based on religious objections by the families of school students.

With measles, mumps and other infectious diseases making comebacks these days, Burke has the right idea.

Americans have constitutionally protected rights to practice religion and those may not be taken lightly. However, the importance of vaccines to public health supersedes the right of public school students to decline them.

The issue was in the news this month when a State Supreme Court justice ruled against a mom named Marina Williams, who had asked the Orchard Park Central School District for a religious exemption to having her daughters vaccinated and was turned down. She said she would appeal.

California banned religious and personal-belief exemptions in 2016, a reaction to an outbreak of measles in 2014 that was traced to youngsters at Disneyland who had not been vaccinated. New Jersey, Iowa, Vermont, Maine and Oregon are also considering eliminating the religious exemption. (Six states are trying to expand the exemptions.)

There is a delicate balance between religious freedom, personal choice and public health considerations. Courts have in many cases ruled that states or other entities have the power to compel immunization.

In January 2015, a federal appeals court said that New York’s requirement that children be vaccinated in order to attend public school does not violate parents’ religious rights. In Phillips vs. the City of New York, the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan also upheld a lower court ruling that students who receive religious exemptions from vaccines may be kept out of school during disease outbreaks.

“The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or to the latter to ill health or death,” the circuit court stated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that measles have infected 159 people this year in 10 states. Seven cases have been confirmed in Monroe County, enough to be classified as an outbreak.

Vaccines are not 100 percent effective, and students who have been immunized will be put at risk of getting measles if they have classmates who have not been vaccinated. So-called herd immunity says that 83-94 percent of a given population needs to be vaccinated to prevent a disease from persisting.

Many medical and health organizations oppose religious and personal exemptions.

“Protecting our communities’ health requires that individuals not be permitted to opt out of immunization solely as a matter of convenience or misinformation,” the American Medical Association’s president, Dr. Barbara McAneny, told The Hill, a Washington website. “That’s why we urge policymakers to eliminate non-medical exemptions from immunization and urge all children and adults to be immunized unless medically inadvisable.”

There are legitimate medical reasons to avoid vaccinating some people, such as those with compromised immune systems. Burke’s bill would not apply to them.

For parents who belong to religions that reject vaccines or other medical interventions, such as Christian Scientists, they have the option of sending their children to religious schools or educating them at home. But their beliefs should not take precedence over states or school districts protecting the health of their youth.

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