ALBANY — With measles outbreaks reported in the Hudson Valley and New York City, state lawmakers are considering legislation that would end the ability of parents to get religious exemptions from requirements that their children be vaccinated.
Critics of the exemptions contend they amount to a loophole that endangers not only the children who don't get vaccinated but also those with whom they come into contact.
"The outbreaks taking place right now in New York underline the importance of making sure that every possible person is vaccinated," said Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz, D-the Bronx.
Dinowitz said he believes that many parents who refrain from having their children vaccinated do it because they have been convinced by "discredited" studies that the immunizations can lead to autism or other disabilities. The best way to prevent an outbreak, the lawmaker said, is to minimize the number of people who have not had a measles shot.
The Centers for Disease Control says the measles virus is highly contagious. Not only can the virus cause a fever and a rash, infection can lead to pneuomonia and even death. Unvaccinated children are believed to be particularly susceptible.
One anti-vaccine activist, Patricia Finn, a Rockland County lawyer who has been involved in legal challenges to mandatory immunizations, contended that the push to end the religious exemption in New York is part of a "scheme" intended to benefit the pharmaceutical industry.
She said that opponents of the exemptions have embraced the "herd immunity" premise that suggests prevention of an outbreak can occur if at least 97 percent of the population has been vaccinated. "They want to eliminate exemptions to achieve herd immunity but herd immunity doesn't exist," she maintained. "Vaccines can actually spread measles and that is probably what is happening."
But Finn's assertion differs dramatically from the advice provided by state health officials.
"Immunizations give children the best protection from serious childhood diseases and have an excellent track record of safety and effectiveness," said Jill Montag, a spokeswoman for the state health department in Albany. "Parents should talk to their pediatrician and work with their school's health services to make sure that all of their children's immunizations are up-to-date."
Rockland County has the highest number of confirmed measles cases in New York, 130. Orange County has 10 cases, while New York City health officials are trying to contain an outbreak in Brooklyn after some 60 people fell ill to the virus. Monroe County has had seven recent cases, while Erie has had one.
Montag said the current measles outbreaks in New York are the largest the state has experienced since the 1980s.
The exemptions are issued by school districts, not by the state or county health agencies.
New York children can be exempted from the measles immunization requirement if their parents or guardian file statements that they have a "sincere and genuine" religious belief that prohibits the immunization of their child. Medical exemptions can also be granted if they are approved by a physician.
The health department reported that 96 percent of all New York children had required immunizations for the 2017-2018 school year, the most recent data available.
Dinowitz said he is optimistic his legislation will advance this year. "I don't want to see anybody die," he said "And I don't want to see people become very sick. Measles was once thought to be eradicated. But thanks to the people who do not vaccinate their children, it is not quite eradicated."
His bill now has a sponsor in the majority conference of Albany's upper chamber after Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, submitted companion legislation.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .