In de­fense of pub­lic health

Elia makes the right call on vac­ci­na­tions but should now abol­ish the ex­emp­tion


Good for State Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sioner MaryEllen Elia for reaf­firm­ing what doc­tors and sci­en­tists and many av­er­age, ev­ery­day cit­i­zens un­der­stand: Chil­dren need to be vac­ci­nated be­fore they can come to school.

It is the only way to keep in­di­vid­ual stu­dents and their peers healthy. When all chil­dren re­ceive vac­ci­na­tions, it fosters “herd im­mu­nity,” which states that 83 to 94 per­cent of a given pop­u­la­tion needs to be vac­ci­nated to pre­vent dis­ease from fes­ter­ing and spread­ing.

Pe­di­a­tri­cians in this coun­try are now en­coun­ter­ing an out­break of measles. The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol show con­fir­ma­tion of in­di­vid­ual cases in 15 states, in­clud­ing New York. Measles had been de­clared elim­i­nated in 2000. It’s com­ing back as too many par­ents sub­sti­tute their be­liefs, ei­ther false or in­suf­fi­cient, for those of pro­fes­sion­als who ac­tu­ally know what they’re talk­ing about.

Un­der­stand­ing the risks of al­low­ing chil­dren to go un­vac­ci­nated surely must have fac­tored in Elia’s de­ci­sion­mak­ing re­gard­ing a case from Erie County. A mother here claimed a re­li­gious ex­emp­tion that would al­low her to send her two teenage daugh­ters to Or­chard Park Cen­tral Schools. The woman, Ma­rina Wil­liams, wanted them to at­tend school with­out the chil­dren hav­ing re­ceived all re­quired child­hood vac­cines.

Wil­liams ap­pealed Or­chard Park school dis­trict of­fi­cials’ de­ci­sion to not al­low her chil­dren to en­roll. Elia dis­missed Wil­liams’ ap­peal on the grounds that she failed to show that the dis­trict’s de­ci­sion to re­ject ad­mis­sion was “ar­bi­trary or capri­cious.” That was the right de­ci­sion, but the State Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment should go fur­ther and sim­ply elim­i­nate the ex­emp­tion. Pub­lic health comes first.

The school dis­trict late last year re­jected Wil­liams’ ap­pli­ca­tion, say­ing that she “failed to demon­strate a sin­cerely held re­li­gious be­lief.” Wil­liams moved in Oc­to­ber to Or­chard Park from West Seneca, where the dis­trict had al­lowed her un­vac­ci­nated daugh­ters to at­tend classes. She at­tempted but failed in Fe­bru­ary to get a State Supreme Court judge to force the school dis­trict to tem­po­rar­ily ad­mit her chil­dren while the state con­sid­ered her ap­peal.

With all due re­spect to Wil­liams, it is un­fair to ex­pect oth­ers to bear the bur­den of her – or any­one else’s – re­li­gious be­liefs, no mat­ter how sin­cerely held. The vac­cine is up to 97 per­cent ef­fec­tive, but that still leaves some chil­dren un­pro­tected. In ad­di­tion, some chil­dren can­not get the vac­ci­na­tion because of med­i­cal is­sues.

It isn’t just those with re­li­gious be­liefs re­fus­ing to im­mu­nize. These mod­ern times have pro­duced par­ents – anti-vaxxers, if you will – who, for what­ever rea­son, have de­cided that they do not want their chil­dren to be vac­ci­nated. Some have at­tached autism to vac­ci­na­tions, an ar­gu­ment that has been re­futed by ex­perts, in­clud­ing those at the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion.

Adults who be­lieve their chil­dren are bet­ter off with­out vac­ci­na­tions should con­sider the long-term health of their loved ones and oth­ers, and re­con­sider. Since many won’t, the State Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment must act.

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