Religious exemption targeted amid measles outbreaks

A week after this year’s second case of measles in Massachusetts was diagnosed, a state lawmaker from Haverhill filed a bill that would remove the religious exemption for vaccinating schoolchildren.

State law requires that children who are entering school be immunized against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles, and poliomyelitis, unless a physician certifies that a vaccine would endanger the child’s health or unless the parent or guardian offers a written statement that vaccination or immunization conflicts with their “sincere religious beliefs.”

A bill Rep. Andy Vargas filed last Friday would strike the language about religious belief, allowing only medical exemptions. “As a Catholic myself, I fully respect everyone’s right to practice their religious beliefs, but nobody has the right to infect another person’s child,” Vargas said in a statement. “We must keep in mind the common good. We have a duty to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.”

Amid large outbreaks of measles both nationally and internationally, the Department of Public Health confirmed late last month that a child in greater Boston had been diagnosed with measles on May 24. Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel attributed spread of the disease to lack of vaccination, combined with domestic and international travel.

Another person in the greater Boston area had been diagnosed with measles on March 31.

A total of 981 individual measles cases has been confirmed in 26 states this year through May 31, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the highest number of cases reported in the United States since 1992 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000, according to the CDC. Last year, a total of 372 measles cases were reported nationwide.

On May 24, Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed a law ending religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccination in her state, joining California, West Virginia, and Mississippi, which do not allow students to be exempted from vaccines for non-medical reasons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Forty-six states, including Massachusetts, allow religious exemptions, and 15 allow philosophical exemptions for personal or moral beliefs.

Last month, the Massachusetts Medical Society’s House of Delegates adopted a resolution making it the society’s policy to oppose non-medical vaccine exemptions for school entrance.

The CDC recommends that children receive their first measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine at 12 to 15 months, and adults have at least one dose of the MMR vaccine. School-aged children need two doses.