Protecting New York's Children: Eliminating Non-Medical Exemptions for Vaccination

A Policy Statement by The Secular Coalition for New York1 and New York’s Vaccine Coalition

“Vaccines are the tugboats of preventive health.”—William Foege, an American epidemiologist who is credited with devising the global strategy that led to the eradication of smallpox in the late 1970s.

Currently, children in New York are legally required to receive vaccination for a series of diseases as a requirement for starting school. New York law provides two exemptions for this requirement: a medical exemption and a religious exemption. While the medical exemption is clearly essential, we believe that the religious exemption should be abolished in NY. Thus, we support the passage of two bills that are before the legislature (A08329 and S06017)2. These bills would repeal provisions of NY law relating to exemption from vaccination due to religious beliefs3. Furthermore, we believe that adding any other non-medical exemptions, for example, exemptions bases on personal belief or philosophy, would be dangerous and misguided.

The case for eliminating non-medical exemptions. Vaccination has demonstrated its value in either elimination or substantially reducing the burden of disease for many diseases, including smallpox, polio, measles, mumps, whooping cough, and others. Vaccination reduces disease not only by protecting the individual, but also by reducing the presence of individuals that are infected and may spread the disease to unvaccinated individuals, including those who can’t be vaccinated or medical reasons (often called herd immunity). Historically, NY has had an excellent record of complying with vaccination recommendations of medical authorities; however, in recent years, New York has faltered. For example, an outbreak of whooping cough began in Brooklyn in 20154. This is only one example, but many areas in New York are vulnerable because vaccination rates have fallen substantially below the levels recommended by the CDC5. Specifically, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) recommends that 95 percent of a population be inoculated against measles. Currently, NY falls below this expectation in many areas. Currently there are 285 schools with rates below 85 percent and 170 schools with rates below 70 percent! Finally, some parents misuse the religious exemption to avoid vaccination of children6. Thus, there is a pressing public health need to encourage vaccination, both via changes in the law and by improved education.

Action Plan. The Secular Coalition for NY and the New York Vaccine Coalition propose that the religious exemption for vaccination be eliminated from NY law. A similar strategy was recently implemeted in California, a state that had also been concerned about low vaccination rates and associated disease outbreaks7.

We also support the efforts of educators and health care professionals to better educate the public so that there is a better appreciation of the substantial benefits conferred by an effective vaccination program. The Secular Coalition for New York and the Secular Coalition for America have a campaign (Put Kids First8) that provides information and key links to the values conferred by an effective vaccination policy.