Maine’s philosophical exemption from required school vaccines is vague and has led to dangerously low immunization rates in some parts of the state. It should be eliminated. But Vermont’s experience with eliminating its philosophical exemption could offer Maine a cautionary tale.
Earlier this year, Vermont became the first state to remove the philosophical exemption from its vaccine laws. Although no data are yet available, recent news reports cite Vermont families who say they will simply claim a religious exemption instead to keep their children unvaccinated. Vermont, meanwhile, is the least religious state in the country, according to a 2013 Gallup survey. New Hampshire and Maine respectively occupy the No. 2 and 3 spots on Gallup’s least religious states list.
“I will become religious, if need be, to get a religious exemption,” Lisa Beshay, the mother of two elementary school-age children, told the Burlington Free Press soon after Vermont’s legislature repealed the philosophical exemption. “I will believe whatever I have to believe to not have my kids vaccinated.”
This sentiment should give lawmakers pause as they consider ways to improve Maine’s childhood vaccination rate. Eliminating the too-easy-to-get philosophical exemption still makes sense, but it should be coupled with a tighter religious exemption, or the elimination of that exemption altogether.
Only two religions, Christian Science and the Dutch Reformed Church, have what could be considered anti-vaccine stances, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Vaccine. So eliminating the religious exemption would impact very few people of faith.
Today, Maine is among 18 states that allow parents to exempt their children from school-required immunizations for philosophical reasons. During the last school year, 84 percent of vaccine exemptions for kindergarten students were for philosophical reasons, a spreadsheet from the Department of Health and Human Services shows. Ten percent were for religious reasons, and 5 percent were due to a medical condition. Parents don’t need to give any reason for a philosophical exemption.
California, Mississippi and West Virginia are the only states that don’t allow exemptions for religious reasons. Mississippi, not coincidentally, had the highest kindergarten vaccination rate in the country in 2013-14, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also happens to be the most religious state, according to Gallup.
California eliminated its “personal belief” exemption earlier this year following a measles outbreak that began last December. California’s exemption covered both religious and philosophical objections.
During the 2014-2015 school year, parents opted out of vaccines for 4.4 percent of Maine’s kindergarten students, ranking Maine 10th in the nation for vaccine opt-outs, the CDC data show.
These might seem like small, insignificant percentages, but for some vaccines, more than 90 percent of a population must be vaccinated in order to achieve what’s known as herd immunity, which protects those who are unable for medical reasons to be immunized against infectious diseases.
As the school immunization data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention show, there are some schools with vaccination rates of 50 percent or lower, which could put many in those communities at risk.
Maine’s vaccination rates are improving, which is good news. But pockets of low rates remain. Making vaccinations mandatory without exemptions for anything other than medical reasons would help to correct this persistent problem.