Fredrickson: It’s time to remove personal and religious exemptions to vaccines

Michelle Fredrickson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.

$68,192. That’s how much Colorado spent on two cases of measles this year, according to a report last week. Measles, which was eliminated in the US until 2000 when the anti-vaccination movement brought it back, is expensive to treat and possibly deadly, especially to children.

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Not only are unvaccinated children in danger themselves, but they are a danger to others who have legitimate medical reasons they cannot be vaccinated. Furthermore, a child sick from one of these preventable diseases costs the state in a massive way.

It’s time to stop humoring anti-vaccination activists and make this life-saving approach mandatory. Colorado needs to join California, Mississippi and West Virginia and eliminate the personal and religious exemptions to vaccine requirements.

As it stands right now, vaccines are required for children to attend public school, but there are three possible types of exemptions – medical, personal and religious. A medical exemption is the only legitimate reason to opt out of a vaccination.  If a child has a health reason such as an immune deficiency or a severe allergy to a vaccine component to a point where they cannot safely be vaccinated, they should be allowed to opt out.

In order for these children who legitimately cannot be vaccinated to still be protected, everybody else needs to be vaccinated. Personal and religious exemptions put these children’s lives at risk.

A personal exemption is the loosest; no reasoning is given, no rationale required. A person just has to fill out a form and say they have a personal reason for not wanting to vaccinate their child, and that is all. While Colorado still allows personal exemptions, many states do not.

A religious exemption is the more controversial one and is difficult to eliminate. Some sects of Christianity, such as the Church of Christ, Scientist and the Dutch Reformed Congregations, take a dim view of vaccines, although no mainstream religion prohibits them. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses, which famously decried vaccines originally, have been supporting them since 1952 and even promoted everybody getting vaccinated in a 2011 newsletter.

If too many people opt out via personal or religious exemptions, then not only are those children in danger of becoming sick, but the ones who had medical exemptions are as well. This works through a concept called herd immunity. If enough of a group is protected, then the disease doesn’t have enough available hosts to keep transmitting. Herd immunity protects an entire group, even those who aren’t vaccinated, because everybody around them is vaccinated.

Photo courtesy of the Brookings Institute

In order for herd immunity to work, a large percentage of the group must be vaccinated. To promote this immunity and stop preventable disease from spreading further, Colorado needs to eliminate the personal and religious exemptions.

Colorado was once again in the top ten healthiest states in the nation, but it is not possible for the state to keep up that honor while spending nearly seventy thousand dollars on completely preventable diseases, simply because of people who refuse to listen to fact or science.

The anti-vaccination movement is growing, especially in the Fort Collins area, and it’s getting out of control. In order to stop this dangerous movement from possibly claiming lives, the law needs to step in and remove the personal and religious exemptions.

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California passed this law in 2015 and has seen a marked decrease in unvaccinated children since then. Although some people attempt to circumvent the law through the medical exemption, it has still been very effective in improving vaccination rates.

The biggest objection to this law is constitutionality of banning the religious exemption, but this has already had its day in court. California was sued by anti-vaccination groups claiming this violated their right to religious expression. In Whitlow v. California, however, the law sided with the state. In the interest of preventing the spread of infectious disease, the court decided that the law had long since overruled personal objections.

This case was decided at a lower court, but on a similar medical issue the Supreme Court ruled similarly in Prince v. Massachusetts, stating in the decision that “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”

Three states in the country have already passed this law and all have seen vaccination rates increase and preventable diseases decrease. If Colorado truly wants to live up to its longstanding title as one of the healthiest states in the nation, it needs to be the fourth.

Michelle Fredrickson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @mfredrickson42