State legislatures are dealing with a rash of legislation to tighten vaccination rules in reaction to the Disneyland measles outbreak, but not every bill is aimed at making sure children get their shots.
In New York, a bill introduced by Democratic state Assemblyman Tom Abinanti would allow parents to claim a “philosophical” exemption to state vaccination requirements, an option now available in 19 states. New York already allows medical and religious exemptions.
In Mississippi, Republicans have introduced a bill to allow a “conscientious” exemption and to codify rules for physician-approved medical exemptions from mandatory vaccines. Mississippi allows only medical exemptions and, not coincidentally, has the highest vaccination rate in the nation at 99.7 percent.
That such bills remain viable amid the measles outbreak stands as a testament to the strength of the so-called anti-vaxxers or vaccine skeptics’ movement, which has found pockets of support across the political spectrum among environmentalists, civil libertarians and a small band of religious followers. Federal health officials report 121 cases of the measles in 17 states.
Meanwhile, a Friday report in the Deseret News found only one denomination — the Congregation of Universal Wisdom — that explicitly bans immunizations. The Amish and Mennonites, who eschew modern technology, typically have low vaccination rates, although that appears to be based more on preference than on any particular religious tenet.
Some parents fear their children may develop autism as a result of vaccinations, despite assurances by public health officials to the contrary. Mr. Abinanti, sponsor of the New York legislation, has a son with autism.
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“I believe that the family, with the doctor, should make the individual determination whether a particular vaccine is appropriate for that child,” Mr. Abinanti told the website Capital New York in a Thursday post. “There are many of us who resent our kids being collateral damage. The possible adverse effects, whatever they may be, and it may be a very small minority — but [the state is] discarding a group of people, which is now a growing group of people.”
Such bills may be the exception this year, but not in the recent past. From 2009 to 2012, 31 of the 36 bills introduced in 18 state legislatures regarding immunizations were aimed at giving parents more wiggle room on vaccines, not less, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“None of the 31 passed, largely because of strong evidence that withholding vaccinations leads to outbreaks of measles, whooping cough and other diseases,” the National Conference said in its Feb. 1 edition of State Legislatures magazine.
This year’s measles outbreak has resulted in a flurry of legislative activity aimed at eliminating or making it more difficult to obtain nonmedical exemptions. Such bills have been introduced in at least a half-dozen states, including California, Oregon, Maine, Minnesota, Vermont and Washington.
One common concern is that obtaining a nonmedical exemption may have become too easy in some states. Oregon’s opt-out rate for nonmedical reasons is 7 percent, the highest in the nation, followed by Vermont at 6.1 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The result is that some communities are at risk of losing “herd immunity” by falling below the recommended 92 to 95 percent childhood vaccination rate, the CDC reported in October. Below that rate, those who cannot receive MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccines for medical reasons are at greater risk of developing the diseases.
In California, a group of state legislators announced last week that they would sponsor a bill to eliminate the state’s “personal belief” exemption, which includes the religious exemption, from the state’s immunization laws. California allowed 17,253 nonmedical exemptions in the 2013-14 school year for an opt-out rate of 3.1 percent.
“Our laws on vaccinations are not strong enough to protect us from preventable infections,” California state Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician, said on his Facebook page. “Sen. [Ben] Allen & I announced legislation to end the personal belief exemption for vaccination and notify parents about their child’s school vaccination rate.”
Mr. Pan, a Democrat, blamed an “unhealthy skepticism” for the return of the measles, which was declared eradicated in the United States in 2000. He was the sponsor of legislation that went into effect last year requiring parents seeking the personal exemption to receive counseling first from a medical professional on the risks and benefits of childhood immunizations.
The CDC reported 121 cases of measles since Jan. 1 as of Friday in 17 states, with 103 of those in California, according to the California Department of Public Health. So far, 39 cases have been traced to visits to Disneyland from Dec. 17-20.
In Montana, a bill designed to increase vaccine requirements took an unexpected turn. House Bill 158 adds chickenpox to the list of required childhood immunizations, but the measure was amended before passage in the House Feb. 2 to include a personal exemption clause. The bill now goes to the Senate, where the sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Margie MacDonald, said she will try to remove the personal exemption language, according to The Associated Press.
Elsewhere, efforts to loosen the rules on vaccines are meeting with resistance. In West Virginia, a state Senate bill to establish a religious exemption had its language stripped in committee after “much outcry from parents, doctors and the health community,” according to WOWK-TV in Charleston.
In Colorado, Republican state Sen. Tim Neville introduced legislation called the Parents Bill of Rights designed to reinforce parents’ authority in making education and health decisions, but liberals quickly condemned it as an anti-vaxxer bill.
Mr. Neville denied the charge, arguing that the bill does nothing to change Colorado’s vaccination laws. The state already allows all three exemptions — medical, religious and personal belief — and has the lowest MMR vaccination rate in the nation at 81.7 percent, according to the CDC.
“It really wasn’t a vaccination bill, but I think the left wanted to make it a vaccination bill,” Mr. Neville said. “They just really wanted to run with the timing that we’re seeing with this news cycle.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at email@example.com.
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