If Parents Won’t Vaccinate Children, The State May Have To Step In

A Buffalo case shines an interesting light on the public health and religious freedom issues posed by childhood vaccinations.

Before students enter school, they need to have immunizations to protect against polio, measles, mumps, hepatitis B, rubella and chickenpox, among others. Roughly 5 percent of Chautauqua County school children receive exemptions from the requirement for medical or religious reasons. Many school districts have a form they require to be filled out on which parents explain the reasons their children should be exempted from vaccination requirements. Those forms — or lack thereof — became the subject of a court case between a mother of two teen-agers who were denied entry to the Orchard Park Central School District earlier this year because they were not current on their vaccines. While the district is allowed to take such action, the children’s mother argued it is the district’s duty to find a way to educate her children outside of the school building. State Supreme Court Justice Mark Grisanti ruled otherwise, saying the children’s mother had plenty of time to make other arrangements to educate her children.

The case came on the heels of an outbreak of measles in New York City that saw 200 measles cases in four months, many concentrated in Brooklyn and Rockland counties that have vaccination rates significantly below the state average. Unvaccinated children in Rockland County were banned earlier this week from going to public places, including churches and schools, until they either were given the vaccine or until the 30-day emergency declaration ended. A state judge, however, ruled that Rockland County couldn’t ban the children from public places and ordered the children to return to their respective schools and other public places.

Between court rulings limiting public action and religious exemption claims being used to avoid vaccinations, the conditions are ripe for further outbreaks. Those who are in favor of mandatory exemptions say the religious exemptions are being cited in cases where parents are actually falling victim to misinformation and scare tactics. The New York Daily News recently wrote about anonymous groups circulating pamphlets in Orthodox Jewish communities that take Jewish law out of context to try to back false claims about vaccinations, an action health officials in New York City blame for furthering the recent measles outbreak within the city.

The state should be careful not to step too harshly on religious freedom, but legislative guidance is necessary in this instance. Measles is a disease that had long since been tamed only to make a resurgence in the wake of the anti-vaccination movement. State lawmakers should take seriously discussion of legislation pending in the state Legislature on both sides of the issue and avoid playing partisan politics with any vaccine legislation.

Of course, the state wouldn’t have to step in if more parents would do the responsible thing and vaccinate their children.