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Editorial: For the public's health

New York State lawmakers acted in the best interest of public health last week when they approved a measure to end the practice of some parents citing religious beliefs as a justification for failing to vaccinate their children against potentially deadly and fast-spreading diseases such as measles.

The Assembly approved the measure last Thursday in the midst of outcry from demonstrators, many with small children in strollers. The State Senate vote a couple of hours later occurred with “far less drama” in an approval by a 36-26 margin. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the bill into law that evening.

This issue has never been about one child or a few but the whole community. It should not be lost or forgotten that there are children with compromised immune systems who would be at risk in schools or day care centers in the absence of the “herd immunity” that broadly administered vaccinations provide. That concept states that 83% to 94% of a given population needs to be vaccinated to prevent disease from festering and spreading.

That’s not happening today as an unthinking anti-vaccination movement spreads measles around the country, with New York City as its ground zero. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said that 1,022 measles cases have been reported in 28 states, the most in 27 years – and after measles was declared eradicated in 2000. The reason: People have become lax or frightened or confused about vaccinations.

Medical professionals have written opinion pieces in this newspaper touting the public health benefits of vaccination. Yet some parents, referred to as “anti-vaxxers,” who refuse to get their children vaccinated, showed up in large numbers at the State Capitol. They wanted to know why their rights were being taken.

Here’s why: They are making other people sick. All rights have limits, and it is unreasonable to suggest that religious freedom includes the right to spread disease.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat and sponsor of the measure in the State Senate, did a good job in framing the argument: “Just as you don’t have a right to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater you don’t have a right not to vaccinate your child because of misinformation you may have received masking as a religious tenet.”

The bill, sponsored by Hoylman and in the Assembly by Bronx Democrat Jeffrey Dinowitz, removes religious beliefs as an exemption that parents can use to keep their children from getting vaccinations in order to attend school or day care. Up until now, parents could fill out a form and declare their religious opposition, putting school principals in what Hoylman accurately called “an impossible position.” Passage of the bill, slim as it was, should help douse what became a microbial conflagration around the country and especially here in New York.

Reasons not to vaccinate ranged from religion to a discredited theory that vaccinations cause autism. Among those refuting that destructive believe is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, Julie O’Shea, a Nassau County mother of two children with religious exemptions, declares, “It’s not a socialist country.” No, it is not, but public health takes precedence, despite the following statements by local lawmakers Niagara Falls Republican Assemblyman Angelo Morinello: “ … We seem to want to regulate everything here,” or Democratic Assemblyman Robin Schimminger of Kenmore, who said the bill “chips away and diminishes our protections of religious liberty in our state.”

Nonsense. Those parents can still home-school their children. They haven’t lost their right not to vaccinate, only their right to make others pay the price for their unhealthy decision. As Cuomo observed: “It’s a public health crisis. I understand freedom of religion. We all do. We respect it. I’ve heard the anti-vaxxers’ theory, but I believe both are overwhelmed by the public health risk.” This new law will save children’s lives.

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