At a time when almost everything is politicized, vaccination has planted itself squarely on the national stage.
On one side of the debate are parents who are rebelling against settled science and calling on states to broaden vaccine exemptions. They cite their faith or believe vaccines pose danger to their children, even though no major religion opposes them and claims of vaccines’ link to autism has been long debunked.
On the other, are public health officials who point to unprecedented measles outbreaks that have sickened thousands in the US as proof that vaccine exemptions cause health crises. They’re calling on states to eliminate exemptions entirely.
With 2020 legislative sessions kicking off in most states this month, this push and pull between science and skepticism is playing out across the country. More and more lawmakers are proposing bills, seeking to either boost, or limit, mandatory vaccinations for schoolchildren.
“I won’t be surprised if we see many pro-vaccine bills this year,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases. “The measles outbreaks were really a wake-up call, showing legislators that maintaining high vaccination rates is not just a theoretical goal.”
In 2019, lawmakers proposed more than 300 vaccine-related bills – a huge jump from previous years. One study found that from 2001 to 2017, state legislators proposed a total of 175 vaccine-related bills.
O’Leary said he won’t be surprised if some antivaccine bills are introduced this year, “but I doubt any will pass.”
Some want to ban religious exemptions, citing science
An overwhelming majority of American adults (88%) say the benefits of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine outweigh the risks, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
And last year, 14 states proposed eliminating religious exemptions for vaccines – a marked increase from years past, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
New York, California and Washington state all voted to end some vaccine exemptions for children who attend public schools, and Maine enacted similar legislation, though it won’t take effect until September 2021.
New Jersey was poised to join them this week, but lawmakers pushing a religious exemption law said they didn’t have the votes. Thousands of anti-vaccine protesters swarmed the New Jersey statehouse, even though public health officials say the benefits of vaccines are not a matter of opinion.
“Science is really on the side of vaccinations,” said O’Leary, who is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “They’re one of the best public health interventions in history in terms of the numbers of lives saved. The benefits far outweigh the risk.”