Making a Case for Stricter Exemptions for Childhood Vaccinations

by | Feb 9, 2015 | Health & Wellness

Dr. Tony Yang of George Mason University. Photo courtesy GMU.

By Jamie Rogers, George Mason University Office of Strategic Communications

The increasing number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children for personal or religious reasons may contribute to outbreaks of measles, mumps and other diseases in pockets of the United States, according to an article by a George Mason University professor that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

All but two states—West Virginia and Mississippi—allow non-medical vaccination exemptions on the basis of religious or philosophical beliefs.

Questions about laws that allow nonmedical exemptions have been raised recently in light of an outbreak of the measles that started last month when someone with the virus visited Disneyland in California and infected five employees, according to media reports.

From there, the outbreak spread to 50 people in Mexico and across five U.S. states. More than 80 percent of those people never received the measles vaccine, according to media reports.

While more than 90 percent of the U.S. population has received vaccinations, there are clusters of the population where the number of unvaccinated people is rather high. A recent California study found that the percentage of under-immunized children in these clusters was between 18 percent and 23 percent, says Tony Yang, a professor of George Mason’s Department of Health Administration and Policy.

Such clusters could increase the chances of an outbreak, Yang says.

Although studies show that stricter rules on exemptions could help reduce cases of vaccine preventable diseases, many legislative initiatives have been focused on expanding exemptions, Yang notes in his JAMA article. Read it here..

In the article, Yang and his coauthor, Ross D. Silverman of Indiana University, analyze various legislative options for regulating nonmedical vaccine exemptions, and their findings can be used as a sort of “legislative toolbox” for lawmakers as they decide how to balance a state’s public health mandate and protect individual freedoms.

The article offers more than 20 options for lawmakers, including requiring parents to submit their nonmedical exemption request for each year the child remains unvaccinated.

States could also pass laws that require parents seeking nonmedical exemptions to pass a basic education course that explains the benefits and risks of childhood vaccinations, Yang says.

Nonmedical exemption laws can also be strengthened by making them applicable to publically and privately schooled children, the study found. Right now, the laws of some states only apply to children entering public schools, he noted.

The effect of state laws that allow parents to opt out of mandatory childhood vaccinations like those for measles and whooping cough were examined in a study published by Yang and Vicky Debold, also of Mason’s Department of Health Administration and Policy, last year in the American Journal of Public Health.

Read the full report here in Yang and Debold’s study, “A Longitudinal Analysis of the Effect of Nonmedical Exemption Law and Vaccine Uptake on Vaccine-Targeted Disease Rates.”

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