New York officially ended religious vaccination exemptions, which allowed parents to refuse state-required vaccinations for their children by citing religious reasons.
The state legislature approved a bill on Thursday mandating that all children attending school or daycare be vaccinated — except in cases of legitimate medical conflicts. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into effect immediately.
“I understand freedom of religion. We all do. We respect it. I’ve heard the anti-vaxxers’ theory, but I believe both are overwhelmed by the public health risk,” Cuomo told reporters.
The United States has seen a recent resurgence of measles cases. And New York, which has seen 588 confirmed cases of measles since September in New York City alone, is the state that has been hit the hardest. More than 340 cases of measles have also been confirmed elsewhere in the state.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio officially declared its measles outbreak a public health emergency on April 9, making it mandatory for residents above older than 6 months to get vaccinated against measles. Those who don't comply and are unable to prove their immunity could be fined up to $1,000.
"The science is crystal clear: Vaccines are safe, effective, and the best way to keep our children safe," Cuomo said in a statement Thursday. "This administration has taken aggressive action to contain the measles outbreak, but given its scale, additional steps are needed to end this public health crisis."
Reasearchers have found that more vaccine exemptions make it easier for people to opt out of becoming immunized, resulting in lower vaccination rates, and contributing to an increase in cases of vaccine-preventable diseases.
In New York, the measles outbreak has been concentrated in Brooklyn, with 300 cases recorded in the borough, mostly among its Orthodox Jewish communities, which have low vaccination rates. Misinformation about vaccines, and their compatibility with Jewish kosher laws, has led many to opt out of vaccinating their children for religious reasons.
However, the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America have urged parents to vaccinate their children following the recommendations from pediatricians and highlighted the importance Judaism places on preserving human life.
“There are halachic obligations to care for one’s own health as well as to take measures to prevent harm and illness to others, and Jewish law defers to the consensus of medical experts in determining and prescribing appropriate medical responses to illness and prevention,” its statement said.
Measles is a contagious respiratory infection caused by a virus, that particularly affects children and causing health complications that could even prove fatal. Infants, pregnant women, elderly people, and those with compromised immune systems, such as patients with cancer, are also especially vulnerable to the disease.
The disease can almost always be prevented by vaccinating children on time. And the measles vaccine, which also prevents mumps and rubella, has been available since 1963. Before then, measles was the leading cause of death among children worldwide.
In the US, measles was declared eliminated in the year 2000. But according to public health officials, the spread of misinformation online has led many parents to opt out of vaccinating their children, paving path for the disease to make a dangerous comeback. The current outbreak is the worst one since 1994.
Anti-vaxxers promoted the idea that vaccines cause autism and brain disorders; however, there is no scientific backing to support these claims. On the contrary, vaccines have been proven effective at preventing measles. One dose is about 93% effective at preventing illness if you come into contact with the virus, and two doses are about 97% effective, according to CNN.
"We are now countering not only the vector of the measles virus, but we're countering the vector of the anti-vaxxers, and that message — that insidious message — is just as challenging as the most contagious virus on the face of the earth," said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The American Medical Association announced that it will also step up its efforts to “incentivize states to eliminate nonmedical exemptions,” on Thursday, according to the New York Times. The association said it will also support state bills — like the one still pending in New York — allowing minors to ask for vaccinations even when their parents have refused to vaccinate them.
New York joins several other states that do not allow religious exemption, including California, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi and Maine.
“Here in New York, we protect vulnerable kids and our community — and we reject misinformation and junk science,” state Sen. Brad Hoylman, a sponsor of the bill, said after it passed.