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by Amanda Conscahfter, blog editor

The new year brings tighter laws on childhood vaccinations in several states—many spurred by California’s 2015 measles outbreak and the nationwide public health debate that followed. Some of these laws eliminate opportunities for parents to exempt their children out of immunizations on religious or personal grounds. Others simply tighten exemption requirements or ensure that schools make immunization rates publicly available.

While specifics vary by state, the broad legislative effort emphasizes patient safety and protection against preventable diseases.

Repealing Personal Exemptions

Vermont became the first state in 2015 to eliminate personal belief exemptions. California did the same – also effectively eliminating religious exemptions, which are not distinguished separately under California law. Prior to California’s SB 277, only West Virginia and Mississippi refused both personal and religious exemptions.

California’s response gained national attention, as had the Disneyland measles outbreak that ultimately infected 113 people across multiple states. California senator and physician Richard Pan, MD, who co-authored the state legislation, explained, “Years of anti-science, anti-vaccine misinformation have taken its toll on immunization rates to the point that the public is now [in danger].” In signing SB 277, California Governor Jerry Brown noted, “The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases.”

California parents who filled out an exemption before January 1 can still delay their child’s vaccinations until July 1. But by the start of the 2016-2017 school year, the state’s exemption repeal will be in full effect.

Complicating Exemption Requests

Meanwhile, a new Connecticut law makes opting out of vaccinations a bit harder. The state now requires that parents seeking a religious exemption submit a legal form, notarized or witnessed by a judge, town clerk or school nurse. Connecticut physician Prasad Srinivasan, MD, who is also a member of AfPA’s Health Policy Council, explained, “There is sufficient data without a question that vaccines are safe and that they need to be administered from a public health point of view, so that all our children are safe.”

Illinois passed a similar law requiring that parents’ religious exemption forms include a notarized signature by a religious official. Meantime, a new law in Oregon requires parents to undergo mandatory vaccine education to qualify for an exemption.  And Minnesota introduced but did not pass legislation that would have required parents requesting an exemption to submit a document signed by a physician acknowledging they had first discussed the risks and benefits of vaccination.

Making Vaccination Rates Publicly Available

Vermont’s new law also requires schools to share immunization rates with parents; Oregon’s new law does the same.  Meanwhile, Illinois requires the state board of education to publish online the immunization exemption data it receives from state schools.

Public health proponents anticipate that California’s law and others like it will promote healthier communities and better protect public school children.

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