People who irrationally fear vaccines shouldn't be allowed to opt out of vaccination laws for either philosophical or religious reasons.
After all, a lot of scientific research shows that vaccines are safe and effective. Sure, there are some risks. But there are risks in everything, including wearing seat belts.
Once in a while you hear of someone dying after being trapped in a burning car by his or her seatbelt. Seat belts save many more lives, though.
Same is true about vaccines. There are occasional mostly minor side effects, yet clearly the benefits both to the individual and to society vastly outweigh the drawbacks.
Until now my state, Oregon, allowed parents to opt out of vaccinating their children for medical, religious, and philosophical reasons.
- 2 states, West Virginia and Mississippi, allow only medical exemptions.
- 29 states allow medical and religious exemptions.
- 19 states, including Oregon and Washington, allow medical, religious or philosophical exemptions.
The result? Oregon has the highest rate of non-medical vaccine exemptions. This is crazily stupid for several reasons.
One is that the distinction between "philosophical" and "religious" is spurious.
Both reasons for not accepting the science on vaccinations are based on personal belief rather than objective facts. What makes a blind religious belief any different from a blind philosophical belief? Each is founded on a subjective view of reality that is at odds with scientific facts.
Yet religions get unjustified special treatment in this country. Just by calling your head-in-the-sand irrationality about vaccines "religious" entitles you to a non-medical vaccination exemption in 29 states.
Given Oregonians' comparatively low rate of religious belief, I guess legislators in this state wanted to put philosophical objections to vaccines on the same legal level as religious objections.
Again, though, each reason is groundless in the face of the scientific evidence, which supports mandatory vaccinations for public health reasons.
So I was pleased to read in today's newspaper that legislation is being proposed which would eliminate non-medical reasons for not vaccinating children.
Download Senator seeks to toughen Oregon's vaccine exemption law
The Senate Health Care Committee on Wednesday is scheduled to hear testimony on a bill that would eliminate the option for parents to claim nonmedical exemptions from school shots. The sponsor of Senate Bill 442, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, a Portland Democrat and family physician, said she has lost confidence that staunchly anti-vaccine parents will change their minds, making her bill necessary.
In 2013, the Legislature passed a policy requiring parents who intend to claim a nonmedical exemption to demonstrate that they've been educated about the risks of denying vaccines through a consultation with a medical provider or videos produced by the Oregon Health Authority.
...Steiner Hayward's original intent was to introduce a "technical fix" into how OHA enforces exemptions, but she plans to propose amendments that would get rid of nonmedical exemptions altogether. Based on anecdotes from school-based health centers and fellow physicians, she said, it's already clear the new policy isn't working.
Parents who were set on refusing vaccines weren't taking the OHA educational videos seriously, multitasking as the videos played and then printing out the certificate to satisfy the requirements for a nonmedical exemption, Steiner Hayward said. Few, if any, were budging on their anti-vaccine stance.
"I'm past the point of being patient about this," Steiner Hayward said.
If the bill passes, parents will only be able to claim medical exemptions to school shots.
Well, I'm not surprised that people who hold faith-based beliefs are highly resistant to information which undermines those beliefs.
During the ten years I've had this Church of the Churchless blog, countless examples of people avidly defending their indefensible beliefs have arisen. As I often say here, this is fine when holding a personal belief doesn't have detrimental effects on others.
If you believe that rap music is the best genre to listen to, and I don't, fine. We'll each happily enjoy different sorts of tunes.
However, your belief that vaccinations are harmful for your children can have a big effect on the health of other children.
A complicating aspect of the debate about immunizations is that they're a combined medical and public health measure. The vaccines not only protect the person receiving them; they also protect the community at large from the spread of disease.
This herd immunity — maintaining a certain level of immunization in the community to prevent disease outbreaks — is especially important for infants who are too young to be fully immunized, pregnant women and people who have conditions, such as cancer, that suppress their immune systems.
"You're part of our society," said Dr. Jim Lace, a Salem pediatrician. "You live here. And you have to be socially responsible. You cannot be selfish. You're part of the whole society that we live in. You can't separate yourself. You don't live on the moon."
Ultimately, Steiner Hayward said, the fear should be of the disease the vaccines protect against, not the vaccines themselves.
"Look, are vaccines perfect? Of course they aren't. I don't know any medical treatment that is," she said. "There is no vaccine that's perfect. Either it's not 100 percent effective — but no medication is 100 percent effective — or it has adverse effects. Every medication has some small percentage. But the rate of adverse effects from the vaccines are dramatically lower — orders of magnitude lower — than the rate of bad effects from any of these diseases."
Nice quote from Dr. Lace. "You cannot be selfish. You're part of the whole society that we live in. You can't separate yourself. You don't live on the moon."
Sadly, that's what irrational faith-based beliefs do which affect other people, whether they are religious or philosophical. They separate us from a shared reality, while often harming our fellow humans.
I recognize that everybody, myself included, is subject to holding indefensible, unscientific beliefs about the world. These won't go away just because laws are passed. Still, society has to do what it can to prevent those beliefs from hurting others.
If the Oregon legislature eliminates non-medical vaccination exemptions, this will be a step in the right direction.