Four years ago, North Carolina lawmakers considered closing a loophole allowing parents to declare a religious exemption to vaccinations without showing evidence of their faith.
It was a smart step to protect families from the misinformed irresponsibility of anti-vaccination parents, but lawmakers backed down in the face of small but furious protests.
Since then, the number of N.C. families declaring religious exemptions has continued to rise. Not coincidentally, the state has endured chicken pox outbreaks in 2016, 2017 and 2018, including one last November that afflicted 36 students at an Asheville school with a high concentration of vaccine exemptions. Now, with a measles outbreak raging along the border of Washington state and Oregon — plus 200 cases confirmed in New York since October — lawmakers in North Carolina have more reminders of the potential cost of inaction.
It’s time to get tougher about vaccinations, not only by eliminating religious exemption loopholes, but by taking additional steps to make sure parents don’t game exemption laws and rules.
Currently, North Carolina statute requires vaccinations for measles, mumps and other diseases for children attending day care, K-12 schools and colleges and universities. Like many states, North Carolina allows exemptions for medical reasons and religious beliefs. The medical exemption needs to be signed by a doctor, but the religious exemption requires only the name and date of birth for whom the request is being made. No explanation of the religious objection — or even evidence of religious affiliation or faith — is required.
That loophole should be eliminated. Most major mainstream religions — including all Christian denominations — have no prohibition on vaccinations, and many advocate for immunization, according to a study in the medical journal Vaccine. The Amish, long rumored to forbid vaccinations, have no such prohibition, and Jehovah’s Witnesses softened their stance on immunizations and now allow them.
Objections to vaccinations also are not based on science, which has regularly and thoroughly debunked the notion that vaccines are unsafe. Despite that, anti-vaxxers stubbornly shake their heads, fueled by an internet-based patchwork of falsehoods and suppositions. Their recklessness not only endangers children who have legitimate medical exemptions, but adults who have vulnerable immune systems because of chemotherapy and other treatments.
North Carolina remains among the states with the highest vaccination rates, but between the 2012-13 and 2016-17 school years, the number of kindergarteners excused from immunization more than doubled, the Raleigh News &Observer reported. Those came mostly from western North Carolina, but there also are pockets of religious exemptions in Mecklenburg and Wake counties.
N.C. lawmakers should not only follow the lead of their counterparts in Oregon and Washington state — who are crafting legislation that would eliminate non-medical exemptions — but lawmakers in California, who are contemplating allowing health departments to crack down on doctors who sign off on questionable medical waivers.
Anti-vaxxers argue the state has no right to tell them how to care for their children. But government has long protected kids from poor parenting, and it has long shielded the greater community from the recklessness of individuals.
It’s time to treat vaccination deniers for what they are — a threat to others.
— The Charlotte Observer