Proposed legislation introduced by Missouri state Rep. Lynn Morris would prohibit discrimination against people who are not immunized. But language in the bill is vague and would pose a risk to public health if passed in its current form.
In other words, it’s a flawed and unnecessary measure.
State law requires children attending public, private, parochial or parish schools to be immunized against measles and other contagious diseases unless they have a medical or religious exemption.
House Bill 1560 would prohibit elementary and secondary schools, public universities, day cares and physicians from discriminating against anyone with legal exemptions.
Morris, a Republican from Nixa, wants to protect a small percentage of the population that is not vaccinated, but he offers minimal evidence that such discrimination is commonplace. Only anecdotal stories from a few parents in southwest Missouri have surfaced.
Protecting individual liberties at the expense of public health concerns is a slippery slope.
As Morris points out, people should be able to object to vaccinations based on religious or medical beliefs without scrutiny. The law already bans discrimination based on religion and other factors.
And schools are required to send unvaccinated children home to protect them from exposure to infectious disease. Prevention is protection, public health officials say, not discrimination.
Morris admitted that the bill’s language needed work after lawmakers in the Missouri House held a hearing on the measure this week.
“We just wanted to get the conversation started,” Morris said. He plans to pre-file the measure the next legislative go-around.
Policymakers should keep in mind measles is a transmittable viral disease and highly contagious. Failing to immunize children has public consequences.
A measles outbreak has infected at least 13 people on the Missouri side of the metro this year, sending several elementary, middle and secondary schools scrambling to contain the epidemic. An unvaccinated traveler unwittingly brought the disease back from abroad.
“This is not something to ignore,” Kansas City Health Department Director Rex Archer said. “We need to be doing our civic duty.”
Science has proved that vaccinations work — the measles vaccine is 97 percent effective with two doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And recent experience reminds that the decision to put public health at risk comes at a high cost.
States such as Mississippi, California, and West Virginia allow no philosophical or religious exemptions for vaccinations. In Washington and Oregon, parents filing non-medical exemptions are required to undergo state mandated vaccine education, according to the nonprofit National Vaccine Information Center.
No such requirement exists in Missouri law. But it should.
Before the vaccine was introduced in the 1960s, 100,000 children were hospitalized and approximately 500 children died from measles each year in the U.S., according to Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led advocacy group. About 90 percent of parents vaccinate their children, according to the group. Delaying or denying vaccines is a huge risk.
“It’s a misunderstanding of what the actual science is,” Archer said. “Or, it’s a lack of understanding that you actually get your kids vaccinated not primarily to protect your kids. You do it to protect those that can’t be vaccinated because of age or medical conditions.”
To eschew recommended measles vaccinations creates a burden on taxpayers. It takes a sizable amount of funding to identify the origin of and stop an outbreak. The health department doesn’t have a final total, but taking overtime pay and other factors into consideration, it will be quite substantial.
“We are already at over 400 hours of staff time,” Archer said.
Legislation protecting unvaccinated children from discrimination is a solution in search of a problem. Morris, who proposed the bill, acknowledged that he was uncertain about potential consequences or outcomes if the measure were enacted — never an encouraging sign when making public policy. The legislation relies on anecdotes instead of well-documented evidence while ignoring more urgent public health issues.
If anything, Missouri needs to tighten requirements for medical exemptions to make it harder for parents to obtain them without legitimate reasons. Regulating opt-out clauses for vaccinations is not punitive, but imperative in the interest of public health.