Foss: End religious exemption for vaccines

A pediatrician holds a dose of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine at his practice in Northridge, Calif.
A pediatrician holds a dose of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine at his practice in Northridge, Calif.

Lawmakers like to appear proactive. 

They’re usually quick to propose and pass new laws when a problem arises. 

Sometimes these laws are good, and sometimes they’re bad, but it’s a rare day when you can accuse the New York State Legislature of doing nothing in response to a crisis. 

Well, consider this a rare day.

The state is suffering its worst measles outbreak in 25 years, which would seem to demand swift and forward-thinking action from lawmakers tasked with safeguarding their constituents’ health and safety. 

Instead, the response from the Legislature has been surprisingly — and disappointingly — restrained. 

The uptick in measles cases is driven by an increase in the number of parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated against a disease that once killed 500 children a year. 

Vaccines depend on something called “herd immunity” to be effective, meaning that a certain percentage of a community must be immunized to prevent those who aren’t vaccinated for getting a disease. When that percentage falls below a certain threshold, outbreaks become far more likely.

In New York, the majority of measles cases have occurred in tight-knit Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City and Rockland County with much lower vaccination rates than is desirable. 

Vaccines are the most valuable tool we have in the fight against measles, but lawmakers appear oddly reluctant to embrace a bill that would curtail the spread of the disease by boosting vaccination rates. 

The proposal, which has languished in the Legislature, would eliminate the state’s religious exemption for vaccines, making it much more difficult for parents to refuse the vaccine for their children. 

Given the state’s alarming measles resurgence, you’d think the Legislature would be eager to pass this bill, and that Gov. Andrew Cuomo would be eager to sign it. 

Unfortunately, the opposite appears to be true. 

Caution has ruled the day, with lawmakers expressing concerns about the constitutionality of the bill. 

“In a democracy, public health policy should not violate religious liberty,” declared Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, a Westchester County Democrat, when announcing his opposition to the bill in February. 

I am not opposed to religious liberty, but comments like this suggest a bizarre, even dangerous, deference to the anti-vaccination movement. 

As a New York Times piece pointed out, there is “no canonical basis for vaccine avoidance among the world’s major religions,” but even if there were, would it justify allowing people to put their children at risk of contracting a deadly disease? 

Objections to vaccines run the gamut, but those who reject them genuinely — if wrongly — believe that they are harmful. Many still believe that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is linked to autism — a theory that has been debunked. 

Regardless, it is time for the New York State Legislature to summon its courage and pass the bill eliminating religious exemptions for vaccines. 

Earlier this week, Maine became the fourth state in the country to bar residents from opting out of vaccination for religious reasons, joining California, West Virginia and Mississippi. 

Ending the religious exemption might seem heavy-handed, but it’s a necessary step given the surge in measles cases that is currently bedeviling public health officials throughout the state. 

It might also be a popular step. 

Over 92 percent of New York children between 19 and 35 months of age have received at least one dose of the MMR vaccine, which suggests that the vast majority of parents see the wisdom of protecting their children from measles, mumps and rubella.

The state Legislature needs to quit its dithering and pass the bill ending religious exemptions for vaccines.

Its failure to act is a failure of nerve, and increases the likelihood that the state’s measles outbreak will only get worse. 

 Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. 

Categories: News, Opinion

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