The number of New York parents who had their child skip at least one required
vaccine due to religious reasons increased over the past decade, according to a
What's more, researchers found counties with high religious exemption rates
also had more whooping cough cases - even among children that had been fully
States set their own requirements on which vaccines a child must have
received to enter school. All allow exemptions for medical reasons, and most,
including New York, also permit parents with a religious objection to forgo
Less than half of states permit exemptions due to personal or philosophical
beliefs. But those also can get counted under religious views in places with
less strict exemption policies.
"Particularly in New York State, I do believe that parents are using
religious exemptions for their personal beliefs," said Dr Jana Shaw, who worked
on the study at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. "There's a lot of vaccine hesitancy."
Rise in cases
Studies have shown cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, have
been on the rise across the US Researchers suspect that's due to the use of a
new type of pertussis vaccine - which is safer, but less effective over the long
run - and to more children missing or delaying vaccination.
For their study, Shaw and her colleagues tracked data from the New York State
Department of Health on both religious exemptions and new whooping cough
Children were reported as having a religious exemption if they had been
allowed to skip at least one required vaccine for non-medical reasons.
Between 2000 and 2011, the proportion of religiously exempt kids increased
from 23 in 10 000 to 45 in 10 000, the study team reported Monday in Pediatrics.
The number of counties where at least 1% of children had a religious exemption
also increased, from four to 13. Most of those counties were in western or
northern New York.
Higher religious exemption rates were tied to more reported cases of whooping
cough. In counties with at least 1% exemption, 33 out of every 100 000 children
developed pertussis each year, compared to 20 per 100 000 in counties with fewer
'Overwhelming evidence' on safety
Children who had been fully vaccinated were also more likely to get sick in
places with high exemption rates. No vaccine is 100% perfect, so infectious
disease prevention relies on "herd immunity" - when enough kids are vaccinated
that the infection can't spread.
"If you have enough exempted children in your schools and neighbourhood, they
will put even vaccinated children at risk," Shaw said. Saad Omer, a researcher
at the Emory Vaccine Center in Atlanta, said the pattern of increasing
non-medical exemptions has been seen in other states as well, including Michigan
Because of the general success of vaccination, "there is less disease to go
around and there's less individual and collective experience. You don't hear
about the disease that often," he said.
"When that happens, successive cohorts of parents start evaluating the real
or perceived risk of vaccines more than the risk of disease."
But those perceived risks - such as a link between vaccines and autism - have
not panned out.
"If you look at the risk-benefit ratio between side effects of vaccines and
the benefits they render, it's not even a close call. It's hugely, heavily in
favour of vaccines," said Omer, who wasn't involved in the new research. Shaw
agreed. "Vaccines are extremely safe, in spite of what the Internet and other
sources have argued," she said.
"We have overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe."
Both Omer and Shaw said they don't think states and schools should pass
judgement on parents' religious beliefs, but that it shouldn't be easy to get a
vaccine exemption for convenience or personal preference.
And, Omer added, "those who don't get (their kids) vaccinated should remember
that it's not a benign choice. There are real disease risks."