Parents’ rights over their children are important, but broadening the exemptions for childhood vaccinations isn’t in the best interests of the state.
Kansas legislators heard testimony Wednesday concerning a bill that would allow parents or guardians to refuse immunizations for their children on the basis of conscience or personal belief. Current state law requires children to be immunized against diseases such as chicken pox, measles, mumps and rubella before they can enroll in school unless their parent or guardian seeks an exemption for religious reasons. It could be argued that personal belief is as valid as religious belief on this matter, but any legislation that encourages more people to bypass childhood immunizations is detrimental to public health.
The state’s epidemiologist testified that states that have broadened their vaccination exemption laws have seen an increase in preventable diseases. Parents who are seeking the additional exemption say the choice of whether to have their children vaccinated should be theirs alone. That would be a valid argument if their vaccination decision affected only their children, but that isn’t the case. For instance, an outbreak of a communicable disease can endanger children too young to be vaccinated.
It’s interesting how parental attitudes toward vaccinations have changed. A generation or two ago, there were no vaccines for childhood diseases like chicken pox, measles of mumps. Children obtained their immunity by getting those diseases. Most children weathered such illnesses with no lasting effects. Unfortunately, some did not. Vaccines are not without risk, but neither are these diseases.
Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, said at Wednesday’s hearing that she did not support the bill because “I still remember polio.” Many older Kansans also remember that disease, which cast a wave of fear across the nation in the 1930s, ‘40s and especially the early 1950s. There certainly was no hesitation to receive the polio vaccine when it became widely available in 1955. Because of effective vaccines, polio was eliminated in the United States by 1979.
It’s ironic that the comfort level of the minority of parents who don’t want their children vaccinated against childhood diseases is a direct result of the fact that the vast majority of children are vaccinated, thereby eliminating the risk of a potentially dangerous epidemic.
Maybe it isn’t totally fair to grant vaccination exemptions on the basis of religious, but not personal, beliefs, but any move that expands exemptions in the state is a bad idea.