In-Depth: Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) reintroduced this bill from the 114th Congress to prevent states from offering non-medical exemptions for meeting school vaccine requirements, thereby requiring children for whom immunization is safe to be vaccinated in accordance with the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices:
“The health and safety of children must be our top priority. Vaccines play an important role in keeping all children safe, especially those with compromised immune systems who rely on herd immunity to safeguard against potentially deadly viruses.”
In a letter to her Congressional colleagues seeking cosponsors for this bill, Rep. Wilson adds:
“A high immunization rate helps protect those who cannot safely be vaccinated, either because they are too young or have a medical condition, e.g. a weakened immune system. The Measles virus is so contagious that one carrier can infect up to 90 percent of the unvaccinated people in their vicinity. Therefore, vulnerable populations rely on a high vaccination rate… The health and safety of children must be our top priority. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that vaccinations will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths in the United States among children born in the last 20 years.”
In 2013 article in Slate, Phil Plait argued that parents who don’t immunize their children shouldn’t have a right to put their children in public schools, as not immunizing their children puts other kids as risk:
“In some areas, public school authorities have mandated that students be vaccinated for various diseases, and that of course can run afoul of parents’ beliefs. I’ve wrestled with this problem for a while, and I eventually came to the conclusion that a parent does not have the right to have their child in a public school if that child is unvaccinated, and for the same reason health care workers should not be unvaccinated. It all comes down to a very simple reality: It puts other children at risk. If you want to rely on the public trust then you have an obligation to the public trust as well, and part of that obligation is not sending your child to a place with other children if they aren’t immunized against preventable, communicable diseases.”
The anti-vaccination movement makes a number of arguments against mandatory vaccination. In a 2019 study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found four overarching themes to parents’ vaccine aversion: 1) trust, emphasizing suspicion about the scientific community and concerns about personal liberty; 2) alternatives, focusing on chemicals in vaccines, use of homeopathic remedies over vaccination; 3) safety, in the form of focusing on chemicals in vaccines, use of homeopathic remedies over vaccination; and 4) conspiracy, taking the form of a belief that the government “hides” information that anti-vaccination groups belief to be facts. Some of the arguments anti-vaxxers marshal against vaccination include a belief that vaccines are related to autism, have dangerous levels of toxins, and that they overtax a baby’s immune system. However, scientific evidence has debunked all of these these claims.
In a 2015 op-ed in the New York Times, Jennifer Margulis, a fellow at the Schuster Institute at Brandeis University and author of “The Business of Baby,” argued that the government doesn’t have a right to force parents to vaccinate their children:
“There is tremendous evidence showing vaccinations prevent childhood diseases. Should public health officials do everything they can to encourage, inform and facilitate childhood vaccinations? Yes. Do they have the right to force parents to vaccinate their children? Absolutely not… It is a news media-driven misperception that parents who claim philosophical or religious exemptions are uneducated or misinformed. Most parents who individualize the vaccine schedule are actively educating themselves, continually assessing their family’s specific health needs, and doing everything they can to keep their children safe and healthy… [I]n America we believe parents are capable of making their own decisions about their children’s health. We believe in freedom of choice. This freedom of choice extends to when — and even whether— parents vaccinate their kids.”
This bill has 17 cosponsors in the 116th Congress, all of whom are Democrats. In the 114th Congress, Rep. Wilson introduced it without any cosponsors and it didn’t see committee action.
Of Note: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of confirmed measles cases has reached a 25-year high, at 764. In 2011, there were 107 confirmed measles infections in the U.S., costing local and state health departments $2.7-5.3 million to contain. As of May 20, 2019, there were 880 reported cases in 24 states — making 2019 the worst year for measles in the U.S. in 25 years.
According to the World Health Organization, global measles cases rose by 300% in the first three months of 2019, compared to the same period in 2018, after consecutive increases over the past two years.
In response to this, Rep. Wilson says, “The ongoing measles outbreak, which has spread to 23 states, is a national health crisis that requires a national solution. We must allow science and fact-based research to guide us in making the right decision for our communities and our children.”
All 50 states require specific vaccinations for school-aged children, but they also all grant exemptions for children who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons. In 19 states, families are also allowed to opt out of vaccination by claiming a “philosophical exemption” based on personal, moral, or religious beliefs.
As The Atlantic reports, personal exemptions have proven to be a “double-edged sword.” On the one hand, they indicate progress in their treatment of religion as only one of a variety of individual belief systems that influence people’s medical choices for themselves and their children. On the other, there’s strong evidence that states allowing people to opt out of vaccinations see lower childhood-vaccination rates and significantly higher incidences of infectious diseases, as compared with states that don’t allow such exemptions.
In recent years, the use of non-medical exemptions increased significantly in some places. Arizona and California, for example, both had nearly 70% increases in exemptions from 2009 to 2013. According to the CDC in 2015, philosophical or religious exemptions have increased 37%.
VeryWell Health reports that, contrary to what some anti-vaccination (“anti-vax”) advocates argue, unvaccinated kids do pose a risk to others who have had their vaccines. Some of these risks include:
- Infants who are too young to be vaccinated can get caught up in outbreaks as they’re exposed at a doctor’s office or hospital where a person with measles is seeking care;
- People with compromised immune systems are being needlessly exposed to measles (this happened in Pittsburgh, when a college student with measles possibly exposed around 100 cancer patients); and
- People developing severe complications from measles (such as a healthcare provider in Fort Worth who developed measles encephalitis during a large measles outbreak there).
Additionally, because people opposed to vaccinations tend to live near enough other, they leave some schools and localities dangerously vulnerable, while other schools and localities are fully protected. According to a USA TODAY analysis of immunization data in 13 states in 2015, nearly one in seven public and private schools have measles vaccination rates below 90% — a rate considered inadequate to provide immunity.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / baona)