Are vaccines a religious matter?

More and more parents are citing religion in choosing not to vaccinate their children against a host of diseases.

Children entering school are required by state law to be immunized against tetanus, measles, polio, pertussis, and diphtheria. There are only two ways for parents to avoid the requirement — obtain a medical exemption from a physician or claim that vaccinations violate their religious beliefs.

WGBH reports that the number of kindergarteners receiving religious exemptions from vaccination requirements is the highest it’s been over 20 years of state record keeping. More than 80 percent of the 920 kindergarteners exempted from the state’s vaccination requirement last year did so by obtaining a religious exemption, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Dukes, Berkshire, and Franklin counties lead the state with the highest rates of exemptions at 8.2, 5.4, and 4.5 percent, according to Massachusetts school immunization surveys from 2018.

Jennifer Reich, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado in Denver who has researched the issue, told WGBH that many parents who take religious exemptions for their children aren’t actually religious. She found that the parents who are most likely to reject vaccines are white, college-educated, and well-off — and tend to view vaccines as a health choice.

“We’ve treated vaccines as a kind of personal consumption product and not really part of public health systems that are really geared towards protecting everyone in the community — not just your own children,” Reich said.

Rep. Andy Vargas of Haverhill filed legislation in April to do away with the religious exemption, in part because there had already been two confirmed cases of measles in Massachusetts this year and nearly 1,000 nationwide. In 2018, there were only 372 cases nationally for the entire year.

Vargas said none of the world’s religions oppose vaccinations. “I have a duty to protect the general public and particularly people who are most vulnerable in our society,” he told the Boston Globe. “I felt that it was time to step up to the plate and respect the science.” Vargas’s bill was referred to the committee on education at the end of June.

Dr. Monica Bharel, the state’s public health commissioner, has also urged everyone to be vaccinated. “I urge all Massachusetts residents to take this health outbreak seriously,” she said.

In May, the Massachusetts Medical Society adopted a resolution making it the society’s policy to oppose non-medical vaccine exemptions for students to enter school.

A group called Health Choice Massachusetts issued a statement opposing Vargas’s bill. “[Massachusetts] has achieved one of the highest rates of vaccination in the country without coercive means and exceeds the levels for herd immunity,” the group said. “Every child deserves a public education without discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or disabilty.”



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