In 2019, 1,282 measles cases were reported in thirty-one states. With a surge of cases in Rhode Island’s neighboring states, the Rhode Island Department of Health is urging parents to vaccinate their children. This crisis is placing scrutiny on parents who oppose vaccinating their children.
Why are cases of preventable diseases like measles rising? For decades, states allowed an increasing number of parents to obtain nonmedical exemptions based on their religious or philosophical beliefs. Philosophical and religious exemptions are the main reason children are less likely to be vaccinated.
Outbreaks of preventable diseases occurred around the U.S. in recent years. This crisis can be prevented if children are vaccinated. Stricter policies are the key to reducing vaccine-preventable diseases.
Following a 2014 measles outbreak at Disneyland in California, one unvaccinated child led to an outbreak, with 125 measles cases reported throughout California, Mexico, and Canada. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 49 of the 110 patients were unvaccinated. This epidemic prompted California lawmakers to pass a new law requiring every child to be fully immunized. California’s decision to eliminate personal and religious belief exemptions increased the number of children receiving mandatory immunizations for measles, mumps, and rubella. Increased vaccination rates contribute to herd immunity. This entails that if a large part of the population is vaccinated, it will be harder for a disease to spread. In other words, herd immunity without immunizations is just a fantasy and the crisis will continue.
Although Rhode Island does not allow philosophical exemptions, religious exemptions are permitted and easy to obtain without a justification or explanation. All parents need to do is fill out a form and have several people sign it, then their child is exempt. Despite religious beliefs, most religions do not have any issues with vaccines on a scriptural level. Yet, religious exemptions are allowed. By eliminating all nonmedical exemptions, more children will be vaccinated. Without religious exemptions in Rhode Island, more children will be protected from a preventable illness during the global Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2016, Rhode Island had a 94.9 percent vaccination rate in adolescents. While this rate seems high, the Coronavirus pandemic drastically affected childhood immunizations. With a stay-at-home order issued worldwide in March, vaccination rates declined. As of May 2020, New York City saw its childhood vaccination rates decrease by 91 percent due to the lack of routine pediatric appointments.
Even though an outbreak of measles hasn’t occurred in R.I. yet, we are at greater risk today because fewer kids are getting vaccinated. In the face of decreasing vaccination rates, children in Rhode Island are at greater risk of contracting preventable diseases. Eliminating religious exemptions will protect all children-particularly those who are affected by auto-immune disease, cancer, and other conditions that prevent them from receiving vaccines. Now, more than ever, Rhode Island needs to tighten up its state vaccination laws and end religious exemptions.
Maddison Smith, a resident of Warwick, a junior at Providence College majoring in health policy and management.