Advertisement
  1. Health

Anti-vaxxers blamed as record 25,000 Florida students claim religious objection to vaccines

Thirteen month-old Jesseniah sits in the lap of her father Danny Jean Louis as a nurse Danielle gives her a vaccination inside the Palm Beach County Immunization Van in 2012. [Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post/ZUMAPRESS.com]
Published Apr. 9

In Florida, children have to be vaccinated to attend public or private schools. There are two exceptions: parents can get a doctor to say a vaccine would be medically dangerous, or they can opt out of vaccines on religious grounds.

That religious exemption has been granted with greater and greater frequency in the past decade, according to state data reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times.

Between 2011 and 2018, religious exemptions shot up each year from about 6,500 students to almost 25,000 — an increase of about 375 percent over those years.

The single biggest year-to-year jump took place last year. In 2017, the state granted 19,729 religious exemptions. In 2018, that number rose by 25 percent to 24,768. (Exemptions can apply to students who received some, but not all, required vaccinations.)

University of Florida medical ethicist Bill Allen said the religious carve-out is not being used for its intended purpose. Instead, he believes it's being abused.

"If parents don't want to vaccinate because they think vaccines cause Autism, they'll claim a religious exemption," he said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: In Pinellas, three cases of the measles revive concerns about those who don't vaccinate

Of course, there's no way to know the intention of every parent seeking the exemption. And although no major religion prohibits vaccinations, some smaller religious sects, such as the Church of Christ, Scientist, do.

But that almost certainly doesn't explain a 25 percent year-over-year spike in exemptions granted, experts say.

Much more likely, said University of South Florida Health assistant professor Jill Roberts, parents are claiming the exemptions after being persuaded by sophisticated online anti-vaccination misinformation groups.

"They put out books. They do speaking engagements. They sell videos, and it looks legit," Roberts said.

Those groups, with official-sounding names like the National Vaccine Information Center, propagate conspiracies like the debunked link between vaccinations and autism.

Numerous credible medical organizations, including the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, agree that no such link has ever been proven.

The overwhelming medical consensus is that vaccines are safe, and that not vaccinating children creates a public health risk to them and to other children.

In the mid-20th century, measles infected millions of Americans every year. By 2000, vaccinations had entirely eliminated the disease from America.

But in recent years, as anti-vaccination sentiment has hardened, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, measles has seen an American resurgence. The Center for Disease Control has already reported 465 cases this year, putting America on pace for its highest level of cases in decades.

In late 2018, measles hit Pinellas County for the first time in 20 years when three unvaccinated people caught the disease.

Roberts said the growing frequency of measles outbreaks in America should cause Florida to reconsider the religious exemption. In 2015, California did just that.

"You really need to tend towards a no tolerance policy," Roberts said. "You really need to put the public health above these issues."

The religious carve-out for schools was first put into Florida law in 1971, long before any of the modern misinformation campaigns around vaccines took off on social media. Allen said the law was initially intended to be an affirmation of the First Amendment, which grants freedom of religion. For years, few took advantage of it: prior to 2011, the state granted a total of about 32,000 exemptions, data shows.

But a 1998 decision by the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee gave the religious exemption even greater weight: the court ruled that Florida officials are not allowed to question the sincerity of a requested religious exemption.

Florida could always get rid of the exemption entirely. However, that idea appears to have no traction in the state Legislature. Katherine Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Brandenton, said although Galvano "personally supports vaccinations," no bill has been filed this session that would end the religious exemption.

A spokesman for Florida House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, did not respond to requests for comment.

The good news from a public health perspective: even if the religious exemption serves as nothing more than a loophole for parents skeptical of vaccines, vaccination levels do remain high overall. Almost 94 percent of the state's kindergartners, and over 96 percent of seventh-graders, were vaccinated in the 2017-2018 school year, state data shows.

But it will likely prove difficult to sway the few anti-vaccine holdouts in Florida. California's recent history shows that even if the religious carve-out went away tomorrow, some parents would still look to get their children medically exempt from immunizations.

The only thing that could truly convince hardcore anti-vaxxers?

A huge outbreak of a deadly, infectious disease, Allen said.

"Until there's a crisis and something bad happens," he said "it's going to be hard to convince a lot of these people."

Contact Kirby Wilson at kwilson@tampabay.com or 727-893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweets.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. A helicopter lands at Tampa General Hospital, one of 66 Florida hospitals that could benefit from a proposal contained in Gov. Ron DeSantis' new budget, a new analysis finds. JOHN PENDYGRAFT  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Tampa General is among the hospitals that would receive money from a proposal seeking to hand out $10 million in new funding.
  2. Work nears completion Wednesday on a common area inside the new USF Health building that will serve as a centerpiece of the Water Street Tampa development in downtown. The 13-story tower is set to open in January. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    The long-anticipated building, part of Water Street Tampa, will welcome students on Jan. 13.
  3. One way to research options is through Medicare's online Plan Finder, available at medicare.gov/find-a-plan. THOMAS TOBIN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    For those who haven’t reviewed coverage for 2020, there is still time.
  4. North Tampa Behavioral Health in Wesley Chapel JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |  Times
    Regulators also found widespread problems with patient care after a Tampa Bay Times investigation into the facility
  5. Lorraine Bonner, a retired Oakland, Calif., doctor who is now a sculptor, says she spent a year recovering after surgical staples were used to seal her colon. A newly uncovered federal database reveals previously hidden problems with the staples that were used in her operation. HEIDI DE MARCO  |  California Healthline
    Millions of injuries and malfunctions once funneled to a hidden government database are now available, prompting many to take a closer look.
  6. Employees are paying more for health insurance. MICHAEL MCCLOSKEY  |  iStockPhoto
    Employees in only two other states paid more relative to their household income.
  7. Tampa Bay Times health reporter Justine Griffin has her finger pricked and blood collected with a lancet to demonstrate a new, one-minute HIV test now available at Metro Inclusive Health in St. Petersburg. MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE  |  Times
    Recently approved by the health department, the INSTI test is reaching more people in a state at the center of the HIV epidemic.
  8. Local emergency rooms and urgent care centers are seeing an increase in cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, this year. As of mid-November, 7 percent of children under 5 discharged from Florida hospitals and urgent care centers were diagnosed with RSV symptoms, up from 5 percent last year and 4 percent the year before. Times (2006)
    The virus known as RSV is common, but severe causes could lead to bronchiolitis or pneumonia.
  9. The Branson family (from left: Michael, Emma, Lucy and Katy) was surprised when they received a $2,659 bill after Lucy needed to get a tiny doll shoe removed from her nose. HEIDI DE MARCO  |  Kaiser Health News
    The Bransons had weathered a typical night of parenting and didn’t give it much more thought. Then the hospital bill came.
  10. The average American life expectancy grew overall from 2000 to 2015, but that the astounding rise in opioid-related deaths shaved 2.5 months off this improvement, according to a study. [Associated Press]
    Americans are being cut down increasingly in the prime of life by drug overdoses, suicides and diseases such as cirrhosis, liver cancer and obesity.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement