End the religious exemption for vaccines in New York State

If you’re of a certain age, you might remember a time when millions of people in the United States got …

If you’re of a certain age, you might remember a time when millions of people in the United States got the measles. When tens of thousands of them ended up in the hospital every year, and hundreds died.

Then came the measles vaccine, and it seemed the extremely contagious virus was pretty much contained.

Think again. Over the last several months, New York has faced its worst measles outbreak in decades, with more than 200 cases confirmed across the state. Nearly all of them were confined to predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Rockland County and in Brooklyn, where more than 60 cases have been reported since October. Some families in those communities have refused to get vaccinations for themselves or their children. The outbreak is believed to have started with an unvaccinated child who caught the virus in Israel.

Some hide behind the exemption

Enough is enough. New York has to stop allowing people to avoid vaccinating their children under the guise of religious reasons.

Nine other states have reported cases in the first month of 2019. Washington State is dealing with a particularly alarming outbreak that has so far sickened 55 in Clark County, right near Portland, Oregon.

It’s only a matter of time before someone dies.

New York requires children to be immunized in order to attend school or day care. However, like many states, New York still permits religious exemptions for vaccinations. But for the most part, most religions do not have tenets that prohibit vaccinating against the measles, polio or other dangerous diseases. Indeed, many religious leaders encourage their communities to vaccinate. But many of those who claim the exemption are hiding behind it, not vaccinating because of unfounded fears or some type of libertarian objection about government.

The only legitimate exemption for vaccination should be a medical one. After a measles outbreak hit Disneyland in late 2014, California eliminated its religious exemption. New York must do the same. Assemb. Jeffrey Dinowitz and State Sen. Brad Hoylman have introduced legislation to do so. They’ve tried before, but other lawmakers, including Assemb. Richard Gottfried, health committee chair, had objections. The biggest one: the desire to protect freedom of expression. It’s an absurd social argument as well a deficient legal one.

Low vaccination rates at many schools

Those who don’t vaccinate endanger not only their own children, they threaten others, particularly babies too young to be vaccinated and older children who cannot be vaccinated because of weakened immune systems or life-threatening allergies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that every school have a 95 percent vaccination rate, allowing for herd immunity — the idea that a community can stop the spread of disease because most are immune — to take hold. But according to state data, there are at least 285 schools in New York with vaccination rates below 85 percent.

That’s frighteningly dangerous.

The measles outbreak should motivate lawmakers to eliminate religious exemptions for vaccinations in this legislative session. It’s the only way to keep children who can’t be vaccinated safe.

The Editorial Board