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Pediatricians' group: End religious, philosophical vaccine exemptions

A student gets vaccinated against pertussis at a Los Angeles middle school in 2012. The state required that students be immunized to halt an epidemic of whooping cough.

This year, California became just the third state to say that parents can not opt out of vaccinating their school-aged children for personal or religious reasons. Now the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that the rest of the country follow suit.

Other medical groups have already adopted similar positions, but the Academy's policy statement is noteworthy because its 64,000 members work directly with parents as they make vaccination decisions for their infants, children and teenagers.

The Academy announced its new position in a policy paper published Monday in its journal, Pediatrics. It said that states with less rigorous vaccine requirements have higher rates of non-medical vaccine exemptions, and higher exemption rates are correlated with higher rates of vaccine-preventable diseases and outbreaks.

While parents have a responsibility to maintain their children's health, states should have the power to overrule parents' decisions when such choices put the child or the larger community at risk, the Academy said. It argued that vaccine refusal for religious or philosophical reasons threatens the health of all kids, especially those who can't be immunized for medical reasons.

Children and adults who can't be vaccinated rely on others around them to be immunized, thereby protecting them against infectious diseases. For highly contagious diseases like measles and whooping cough, 95 percent or more of a community must be vaccinated in order to protect these people, according to the policy paper.

The Academy's new stance follows recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including the measles outbreak that began at the Disney theme parks in Anaheim in Dec. 2014, said Dr. Geoffrey Simon, a co-author of the policy paper. The shift was also spurred in part by the introduction of California's SB 277, which became the law that bans personal belief and religious exemptions for public and private school kids entering day care, kindergarten and 7th grade, Simon said. 

State Senators Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) wrote the bill in the wake of the Disney outbreak, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it in June 2015. It took effect in the current school semester.

The events in California were among several factors that made the national group realize "this is the time to step forward and come out with the statement,” Simon said.

Mississippi and West Virginia are the only other states with such strict vaccination laws.

The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians issued statements opposing non-medical vaccine exemptions last year. The Infectious Diseases Society of America adopted the same position in 2012.

Opponents of California's new law argue that the government is unfairly denying parents the ability to manage their children's health the way they see fit. Critics include those who oppose the current vaccination schedule and those who oppose vaccinations altogether.

A number of families and advocacy groups have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the lawon the grounds that it violates the California Constitution's guarantee of an education for every child, among other things. Last Friday, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw rejected the plaintiffs' request for an injunction blocking the law while the case works its way through the courts.