Parents can still opt not to vaccinate their children for religious reasons
Late last month, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed legislation to remove philosophical exemptions from his state’s vaccination law.
Prior to the new legislation, a philosophical exemption, based on parents’ personal beliefs, moral objections or safety concerns, was the one most commonly used in Vermont. (The state still offers medical and religious exemptions.) According to the Vermont Department of Health, about 4 percent of students in the state used a philosophical exemption during the 2014-15 school year.
The state has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with less than 88 percent of students entering kindergarten this school year being fully vaccinated. That is below the 95 percent mark identified by public health experts as creating “herd immunity” against vaccination-preventable diseases.
“Vaccines work and parents should get their kids vaccinated,” Shumlin said in a statement. “I know there are strong feelings on both sides of this issue. I wish the legislation passed three years ago had worked to sufficiently increase vaccination rates. However we’re not where we need to be to protect our kids from dangerous diseases, and I hope this legislation will have the effect of increasing vaccination rates.”
It is unclear if repealing the philosophical exemption will boost vaccination rates. “I really can’t predict, since Vermont is the first state to eliminate the philosophical exemption,” Christine Finley, immunization program manager with state’s health department, told the Burlington Free Press. “However, research has shown that states with only religious exemptions tend to have lower non-medical exemption rates.”
Outbreaks, like the measles earlier this year at Disneyland and whooping cough in several western states, have been increasingly difficult for politicians to ignore. Measles is one of the world’s leading causes of death among children younger than age five, according to the World Health Organization. In 2013, the disease killed nearly 150,000 people worldwide. Whooping cough, which hit epidemic levels in California in 2014, can be fatal, especially in infants, who are too young to be immunized.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has expressly stated that there are no scientific studies showing vaccinations are unsafe.
In spite of this reassurance, many Americans still opt out of vaccinating their children. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found 68 percent of Americans believe childhood vaccinations should be required. Among younger parents (aged 18 to 29), however, that percentage dips to 59 percent.
All 50 states (and Washington, D.C.) allow some type of exemption for medical reasons—generally compromised immune systems—according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Forty-eight states (and D.C.) allow religious exemptions. With Vermont’s new legislation, only 18 states (and D.C.) now allow philosophical exemptions. West Virginia and Mississippi are the only two states that don’t allow philosophical or religious exemptions. California is poised to join them; its state Senate just approved a no-exemption bill.