MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This winter, outbreaks of a disease once considered eradicated in the U.S. are prompting states to take action. Measles has sickened nearly 160 people from Washington and Oregon to Texas and New York. Most of the cases are among children who were not vaccinated. As NPR's Patti Neighmond reports, this has some states considering laws that would make it more difficult for parents to opt out of vaccinating their children.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: All states require parents vaccinate their children against preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough if they want them to attend school and there are no medical reasons not to vaccinate. But most states also allow parents to opt out of vaccination for religious reasons even though most religions don't prohibit vaccination. Seventeen states go further, allowing parents not to vaccinate if they have personal or philosophical objections. Michelle Mello is a lawyer and health policy researcher at Stanford University.
MICHELLE MELLO: You can believe that vaccines don't work, that they're unsafe or that they simply fly in the face of your parenting philosophy, and you really don't even need to provide a reason.
NEIGHMOND: Typically, Mello says, parents say they embrace a natural way of living, and that the body can do its own fighting against disease. But the measles virus should not be underestimated, says Diane Peterson with the pro-vaccine Immunization Action Coalition.
DIANE PETERSON: It is not like a common cold. Children are very, very sick. Many of them have been hospitalized, and it can even lead to death.
NEIGHMOND: Measles is highly contagious, spreads easily in air and can live for hours.
PETERSON: It's spreading fast because we have pockets of children that have not been vaccinated mostly due to their parents' decision not to vaccinate them so that it can spread quickly among unvaccinated children.
NEIGHMOND: Including infants who are not old enough to be vaccinated and individuals with compromised immune systems, such as HIV or cancer patients who are too sick to be vaccinated. Bills pending in at least eight states, including those that have experienced measles outbreaks this year, would remove personal exemptions for the measles vaccine. Others would remove the exemption for all vaccines.
Barbara Loe Fisher with the National Vaccine Information Center, a group that opposes mandatory vaccination, says parents should have the right to refuse to vaccinate their children.
BARBARA LOE FISHER: Nobody should sit in judgment of another person's religious or spiritual beliefs. No person should be allowed to force someone to violate their conscience when they're making a decision about the use of a pharmaceutical product that carries a risk of harm.
NEIGHMOND: The scientific consensus is that harm is rare, and severe consequences like autism were debunked years ago after those findings were proved fraudulent. And when public health is threatened, lawyer Mello says states should keep exemptions to a minimum.
MELLO: The courts have repeatedly held that when a public health intervention is necessary to safeguard the public health generally, individuals can be required to trade off some of their personal liberty.
NEIGHMOND: Particularly if that liberty is tied to a government benefit, like school. As it is now, three states - Mississippi, West Virginia and California - prohibit exemptions based on religious and other beliefs. The California State Legislature made its move within a year after the state experienced a significant measles outbreak that began in Disneyland. Patty Neighmond, NPR News.
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