The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that the number of new cases of measles is continuing to grow nationwide, and at this rate 2019 could become the worst since measles officially was labeled eliminated in 2000. At the same time, the number of parents in Florida claiming a religious exemption to avoid getting their children vaccinated for measles and other diseases continues to rise. That puts other children at risk, and the practical solution to the apparent abuse of the religious exemption is to abolish the exemption for the greater public good.
In Florida, students must be up to date on their vaccinations to attend public or private school. The only ways around the requirement are to get a doctor to say a vaccine would endanger a child's health, or claim a religious exemption. As the Tampa Bay Times' Kirby Wilson recently reported the number of Florida parents claiming religious exemptions has exploded over the last decade. Just last year, the number shot up to nearly 25,000, a 25 percent increase from the previous year.
Vaccines protect individuals, and when enough people are vaccinated, they help keep the entire community healthy. Germs are less likely to spread, and everyone is less likely to get the disease, even those who can't be vaccinated for legitimate reasons. When too many people opt out, the chance of an outbreak increases. New York, California and the Pacific Northwest have all had serious measles outbreaks in recent years, thanks largely to residents going unvaccinated. Last year, three unvaccinated people in Pinellas County contracted measles, even though health officials thought they had eliminated it. Florida reported a total of 15 measles cases last year and one last month, but the state could easily suffer more serious outbreaks if more parents continue to game the system.
The shortsightedness comes at a cost. Measles, for instance, can cause pneumonia and ear infections. In tougher cases, it leads to deafness, brain damage or death. The outbreaks take a financial toll, too. Health departments spring into action tracking down anyone who may have come in contact with an infected person, as they try to keep the highly contagious diseases from spreading. Even a small outbreak can cost a local health department hundreds of thousands of dollars. Larger outbreaks cost millions.
Only a few small religions ban vaccinations, and for years those true believers were largely the only ones requesting exemptions. Now too many parents are opting out, many apparently citing religious beliefs they don't really hold. In 1998, a Florida appeals court ruled that government officials are not allowed to probe the sincerity of requested religious exemptions. They must take them on faith, so to speak.
The only way out is zero tolerance — no one gets a religious exemption. Florida wouldn't be alone. California did away with religious exemptions in 2015. Mississippi and West Virginia don't allow them, either. People have a right to practice their religion, even if that means not vaccinating their children. But those states wisely decided religious freedom does not extend to sending their unvaccinated kids to school and putting others at risk.
It's unfortunate that it's come to this. The system was fine until it was abused. The bottom line is that vaccines work.