Faced with a rash of recent measles outbreaks, states like Washington, New York
It would seem the stakes for such legislation has never been higher. The United States experienced 17 different measles outbreaks in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And while high percentage of vaccinated children results in the kind of "herd immunity" that prevents contagious diseases like the measles from spreading, some doctors have warned that honing in on religious exemptions alone won't address the risk of future outbreaks.
"People think of the Amish as the classic group that doesn't want to vaccinate," explains Daniel Salmon, a director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety. "Most people who have concerns aren't ideologically opposed to vaccines. They just don't trust the science, they've been misinformed, or they hold different values."
The Science is Clear
While vaccine exemptions have grown steadily over the past three years, to a median 2.2 percent of kindergartners among all states, it's unclear the precise role religion has played. Many Amish in Ohio began vaccinating their children after their own 2014 measles outbreak, for example.
In the largely agnostic state of Washington, only 0.3 percent of families used a religious exemption to avoid vaccinating their young children in 2018, compared to 3.7 percent who used a personal exemption. Many who oppose vaccines cite the threat of autism, based on a 1998 study that used falsified data. Though the study was later retracted and debunked by overwhelming scientific evidence, many of those fears persist to this day.
Despite the fact that recent outbreaks in New York and New Jersey have occurred primarily among unvaccinated ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, where many believe vaccines cause diseases, religion alone may not be to blame.
The Pew Research Center found most religious believe healthy children should be required to receive vaccinations to attend school. Scholars insist no major religious group can point to doctrine to advocate against vaccinations, even if some do object to the use of tissue from aborted fetuses in creating vaccines. The Catholic Church has since come on board, while the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has compared the practice to using organs from a murdered person to justify vaccines.
Legitimate Concern - or Loophole?
Some researchers believe certain parents only use religious exemptions because they can.
"As the anti-vaccine movement grows in strength and power, they could use the religious exemption loophole," says Peter Hotez, a vaccination proponent and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "Right now I don't see it as significant as an issue."
Rather than pick on the religious, it may be wiser to tackle the wonky science and selfish personal beliefs behind the anti-vaccination movement once and for all.
This may be the quickest path to full ignorance-immunity.