Like most states, Oregon requires children enrolled in public or private schools — as well as child care facilities — to be properly immunized. But parents can seek an exemption to that requirement based on a medical or religious concern — and an increasing number of Oregonians have been doing just that, bolstered by a burgeoning yet scientifically unfounded anti-vaccine movement.
The new bill would make the religious exemption more difficult to obtain. If passed, parents vying for a belief-based exemption would first have to consult directly with a doctor or watch an educational video about the risks and benefits of immunization before receiving it. The parents would then have to provide proof of that educational consultation to schools or day cares before enrolling their un-vaccinated children in them.
Doctors and public health advocates say that the measure is necessary in a state that has seen its kindergartners getting vaccinated less and less. The number of Oregon kindergarten students receiving vaccine exemptions has ballooned from less than two percent in 2001 to 6.4 percent today, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That’s the highest non-vaccination rate in the country.
Detractors argue that the legislation impinges on personal medical preferences and religious freedom. One Republican state senator lamented the bill for “taking away the choices of parents as to how they raise their kids.”
The bill’s proponents counter that Oregon’s low compliance rate has less to do with religion or personal choice as it does with conspiracy theories and misconceptions about vaccines. “I worry that most people who use the religious exemption currently are doing so because of pseudo-scientific misinformation, and not because of their faith,” said state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D) in an interview with the Associated Press.
That sort of misinformation can have dire public health consequences. The U.K. is still reeling from the effects of a widely-debunked 1998 study that falsely linked vaccines to autism. Many British parents refused to vaccinate their children against measles because of the study, and now public health officials are rushing to contain a budding measles epidemic among older children and teenagers who never got their shots in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
America has also seen its fair share of public health fallout from scaremongering over immunizations. The CDC has labeled Americans’ vaccination rates against influenza and HPV as “unacceptably low,” with less than one in three American girls getting a full course of HPV shots.
Less than half of Americans receive their annual influenza vaccine. Approximately 90 percent of the 105 U.S. children who died from the flu last winter had not received a flu shot.