Recent Measles Outbreaks Cause Lawmakers to Take Action Against Lenient Vaccine Exemption Policies

March 13th, 2015

By CHHS Extern Lisa Bowen

The dramatic decrease in lead poisoning rates after the removal of lead from gasoline and the ban on lead-based paint is a perfect example of how public health interventions are more successful when public health policy is enacted. Unfortunately, it usually takes seventeen years to translate scientific evidence into policy. However, outbreaks of a highly infectious disease seem to act as a catalyst for the creation of public health laws and regulations.

Only three months into 2015, 173 people in 17 states have been infected with measles. While there is a slight risk of catching measles after being vaccinated, the outbreaks have primarily been spread by un-vaccinated individuals. This has called into question the lenient policies surrounding waivers that allow parents to forgo vaccinating their children. The states where two of the recent outbreaks originated, California and Illinois, both have new bills on vaccine exemption waivers pending before their respective legislatures. The majority of the states that have been impacted by the recent outbreaks, including California, have laws that allow philosophical exemptions, which only require a signed form from parents who want to opt out of vaccinations, without requiring any documentation or justification regarding the specific philosophic reason for the exemption. Now, after so many measles cases, six of the affected states that allow philosophical exemptions are considering stricter legislation. In general, fourteen states have proposed bills that would make the process of obtaining exemptions more difficult to varying degrees. Some states, such as California, Michigan, and Minnesota would require signatures from health care providers for exemption waivers, whereas many other states are proposing to do away with philosophical, and in some cases, religious, exemptions altogether.

While the proposed bills typically have bi-partisan and public support, some groups are not in favor of stricter vaccine laws. Opponents of the proposed bills believe that mandates around vaccines infringe on human rights and civil liberties. Another opponent stated that lawmakers should instead focus on the portion of the population that remains unvaccinated due to healthcare access.

Policies that eliminate vaccine exemptions, or at least make the process of obtaining exemptions more difficult, have the potential to increase herd immunity and eradicate measles from the United States once again. It is clear that the recent measles outbreaks have helped demonstrate the importance of vaccinations, which has prompted law makers to propose new bills. But, it is uncertain whether or not these bills will become law, especially with continued resistance from anti-vaccination groups. For now we will have to wait and see: is a widespread measles outbreak enough evidence for the creation of laws aimed at increasing immunization rates, or will it take another 16 years?

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