Faith Lets Some Kids Skip Shots

 Barbara Loe Fisher is leading a national campaign seeking broad exemptions from vaccination mandates. Most states already allow parents to opt out on religious grounds.
Barbara Loe Fisher is leading a national campaign seeking broad exemptions from vaccination mandates. Most states already allow parents to opt out on religious grounds. (Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)
By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

In public health circles they are known as "exempters" -- parents who for reasons of faith or philosophy choose not to immunize their children against diseases such as measles and whooping cough. Some exempters claim that childhood vaccines contain unnatural or harmful ingredients; others say they regard vaccination as a "dark force" that conflicts with their belief in a benevolent deity; still others are members of a religion that bars invasive procedures.

Regardless of the reason, the ranks of parents exercising nonmedical exemptions to vaccination are growing, public health officials say. Although the number remains small and involves an estimated 2 to 3 percent of the approximately 3 million children who start kindergarten annually, the trend alarms some experts. They worry that parents' fears are being stoked by misinformation about vaccines that abounds on the Internet and are using religion as an excuse to opt out of immunization. This refusal, scientists say, threatens a cornerstone of public health.

"People are motivated by their fears," said Paul Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and one of the most outspoken defenders of vaccines. "Young mothers today don't see these diseases, they didn't grow up with them. Vaccines were not a hard sell" several decades ago, when people saw children killed by measles, brain-damaged from haemophilus influenzae or deaf after a case of mumps.

"I think religious exemptions are used as a default," said Offit, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania who has written several books on vaccines.

Half a dozen studies, Offit noted, have found no link between vaccines and autism, one of the major objections cited by those who spurn immunization. The overwhelming consensus among scientists, he said, is that the benefits of vaccination greatly outweigh the risks.

But that view is rejected by such anti-immunization groups as Vaccine Liberation and Citizens for Vaccine Choice. They claim the shots are harmful and urge parents to exercise their right to avoid them.

Two weeks ago, a Northern Virginia-based group called the National Vaccine Information Center launched a campaign calling for "broad exemptions for medical, religious and conscientious belief reasons." According to Barbara Loe Fisher, the group's co-founder, "forcing vaccination is a violation of human rights."

Every state and the District grants medical exemptions to children who are allergic to components of vaccines or whose immune systems are too compromised to benefit from them. And all but two states -- West Virginia and Mississippi -- allow parents to opt out on religious grounds.

In some states, such as Maryland, parents need only sign a form claiming a religious exemption, while parents in Virginia and the District must submit a notarized statement.

In recent years lawmakers in 21 states, none of them local, have created "personal-belief" or philosophical exemptions that permit children to skip vaccines on the grounds that they conflict with a parent's views.

"Many states are making personal-belief exemptions easier," said Saad B. Omer, a vaccine researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Filing for an exemption should at least be a function of conviction, not laziness."

In 2006, Omer and other vaccine researchers published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association which examined rates of pertussis, or whooping cough, in states with personal-belief exemptions and those where nonmedical exemptions were easy to obtain.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company