In a nation where a focus on individual rights seems to be gaining momentum every day, the recent measles outbreak originating in Disneyland has lawmakers weighing the cost of freedom against public health concerns: At least 10 states have introduced legislation that would make vaccine exemptions difficult for non-medical reasons.
After a measles outbreak, which began in Disneyland and eventually grew to infect 150 people in 17 states, lawmakers turned their attention to the anti-vaccination crowd. Anti-vaxers are a small but vocal cohort of the American population that believes (for various reasons debunked by science) that vaccines are somehow harmful, or should at least be a choice for parents.
Though vaccines have always been optional to some degree, the fact that most of the recent measles cases occurred in those without vaccines have brought them back into the public spotlight. In all, 10 of the 17 states with confirmed measles cases have easily-exploited opt-out clauses. Six of them introduced legislation that would, at the very least, apply pressure to parents hesitant to vaccinate their children.
The bills range from subversive to restrictive. Some states, for instance, have proposed laws requiring schools to post vaccination rates. Others go further, eliminating or heavily regulating philosophical and even religious exemptions, the means by which most parents who do so avoid vaccinations. In all states, the bills draw bipartisan support.
Some states already have strict laws on the books. Mississippi, for instance, passed a law in 1979 denying all personal and religious exemptions, noting that such exemptions put children at risk. New bills have been introduced to challenge the laws, but so far all attempts have been thwarted.
Other states have the opposite issue. Maryland passed a law in 1982 that declared refusing religious exemptions would constitute discrimination, with the only loophole being that vaccines could be required in the case of a public health emergency. Colorado, which currently permits both personal and religious exemptions, was unable to pass a law requiring that those opting out first either consult with a doctor or complete an online module after a deluge of resistance from the public.
Most of the proposed laws are tied in some way to school enrollment, which won’t necessarily stem the growing anti-vaccination tide – parents can opt to home-school children denied entry to public schools on the basis of vaccinations.
Though most of the proposed laws are still in their nascent stages, all legislators interviewed by Reuters were optimistic about their chances. An earlier Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 80% of Americans believe all children should receive vaccinations. Those who don’t, however, are steadfast in their beliefs.
“It’s completely unfair and it’s ridiculous and a violation of the Constitution,” said an anonymous nurse practitioner who’s home-schooling her son after schools refused to exempt him from flu and hepatitis B vaccinations.