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After Measles Sweeps The Country, States Scramble To Make It Harder To Skip Vaccines

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

The recent measles outbreak that originated at a Disneyland theme park is no longer making national headlines. But the rapid spread of the highly infectious disease — which has so far infected more than 150 people across 17 states — continues to influence policy decisions across the country.

At least 10 states have proposed tightening their vaccine requirements to make it harder for parents to opt out their children from recommended shots, according to Reuters. It’s an issue that cuts across party lines; Reuters reports that most of this year’s measures have received bipartisan support and have a good chance of advancing.

At the beginning of the year, several politicians sparked controversy by suggesting that vaccinating children should be left up to parents’ discretion. “While I think it’s a good idea to take the vaccine, I think that’s a personal decision for individuals,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said last month, calling vaccination a matter of “freedom.”

Health experts disagree, maintaining that it’s important for all children to follow the current vaccination schedule, which is carefully timed to ensure the maximum amount of protection from potentially dangerous infectious diseases. This policy is largely enforced through the public school system. In all 50 states, there is some type of vaccination requirement for children entering public schools.

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But many states also allow parents to circumvent those requirements by seeking a “personal belief” exemption, often requiring them to simply sign a form saying they’re personally opposed to vaccines — a loophole that’s been directly tied to lower rates of vaccination and higher rates of disease outbreaks.

Now, states like Vermont, Maine, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and California are working to change that. State lawmakers are proposing a range of solutions that include requiring parents to meet with a doctor before opting out of vaccines, requiring school officials to publicize their students’ vaccination rates, and making vaccines mandatory for kids enrolling in Head Start.

“There seems to be more support for tightening up these nonmedical exemptions,” Diane Peterson, the associate director for immunization projects at the Immunization Action Coalition, told the National Law Journal last month, when states started scrambling to propose new bills in this area.

This type of legislation isn’t necessarily controversial on a broad scale. Recent polling conducted amid this year’s measles outbreak confirms that the majority of Americans favor mandating vaccines for children.

But the national conversation about infectious disease prevention has reinvigorated a small but vocal contingent of people who believe that vaccines can be harmful, and want to fight for their right to refuse the shots for their own families. Plus, while some parents may not reject vaccines altogether, they’re still skeptical of the immunization schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One recent study found that more than 90 percent of pediatricians have received a request to forgo the federal schedule and delay kids’ vaccines.

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That’s why, in addition to tighter state laws, some vaccine proponents are pushing for more education campaigns to help doctors learn how to be firmer with their parents in this area. Dr. Paul Offit, one of the country’s most prominent immunization experts, hosts lectures where he teaches physicians to calmly argue down parents who may question the use of vaccines during their next visit. Previous studies have also found that anti-vaccine parents are more likely to be swayed by talking to people in their social network versus hearing public health information from the government.