Recent stories in The Pilot concerning immunization rates in Moore County’s public and private schools are interesting but not alarming. Vaccination rates for entering kindergartners and rising seventh-graders are actually quite good, if not total.
North Carolina parents’ compliance with vaccination requirements are also high. Current year is not yet available, but last school year, North Carolina’s compliance was 97 percent for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine; and 96.8 percent for the vaccine that covers whooping cough, tetanus and diphtheria.
Those figures are a bit higher than the national median, but not as strong as Mississippi at 99.4 percent compliance. There’s good reason for Mississippi’s high number — and West Virginia and California’s 98 percent.
They are the only three states that do not allow vaccination exemptions based on religious or personal beliefs. Only a medical exemption certified by a physician prevents a child from going unvaccinated.
A Simple Note, A Massive Loophole
Seventeen states allow vaccine exemptions for “personal beliefs,” but North Carolina is not among them. It does, however, allow for religious objection, and that’s where the biggest loophole exists. For a medical exemption, a doctor must attest to a child’s condition. No such threshold is required in this state for a religious exemption. There is no form. A simple hand-written note from a parent, providing the name and birthday of the child, and a statement of religious objection is sufficient. Hand that note to a school, summer camp or day care and you’re good to go.
There is no sign-off required by your priest, minister, shaman or spiritual adviser. You don’t even need to state your religion.
Those who argue for the protection of this provision say that school attendance should not be impeded by religious beliefs. To do otherwise, they state, would be unconstitutional.
OK, so how many religions take stands against childhood immunization? With this kind of exemption, surely a number of faiths must look down upon the intervention of modern medicine.
This, in fact, has been the subject of some research by medical specialists.
Let Public Health Prevail
According to a 2015 story in Slate magazine, a 2013 survey of religions published in the journal “Vaccine” could find just two faiths that expressed any view whatsoever about immunization: Christian Scientists and the Dutch Reformed Church — and it may not even be both. That 2013 study quotes Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, as saying, “Rather than quarrel over vaccination, I recommend, if the law demand, that an individual submit to this process, that he obey the law, and then appeal to the gospel to save him from bad physical results.”
California used to have a religious exemption. Its legislature eliminated it in 2015, prompted largely due to a measles outbreak at Disneyland the year before that sickened 159 people.
In the interest of overall public health — and the truly medically fragile among us — it is appropriate that the General Assembly either tighten or eliminate its religious exemption for childhood immunization.
The exemption as it exists now has always been weak, but the recent uptick in what were once well-controlled diseases like whooping cough and measles indicates concern for overall public health. At the very least, any statement of religious objection should state the person’s religion, the nature of the objection, and have it signed by that person’s minister or spiritual adviser.
Physicians dub high immunization rates “herd immunity.” When the vast majority are protected, they then protect the weak and fragile from illness. Immunization is not just for the welfare of the child and their family. It’s for all of us in schools, grocery stores — and church.
Is immunization too much to ask? In the interest of public health, shouldn’t it be?