The firestorm that erupted after legislation to remove the religious exemption from North Carolina statutes on vaccines was introduced must be interpreted in the context of what we know about immunizations and religions.
The childhood immunization program is the most effective health initiative in the history of mankind. However, because the program has been so effective, most people have never seen a child with a vaccine-preventable disease other than influenza. For a vaccine to be effective, more than 90 percent of children must be immunized. Permanent injury from childhood vaccines is extremely rare. I have been working in high-volume primary care pediatrics for almost 38 years – our practice experiences over 100,000 patient visits per year – and I am not aware of a patient who has experienced a permanent injury from a childhood vaccine. There are medical reasons to withhold immunizations from a child, but they are rare.
Since 1982, when NBC carried a story about suspected brain damage stemming from the whooping cough vaccine in Great Britain, there has been a growing distrust of childhood immunizations. The 1982 hypothesis was discounted in 2006, when a genetic reason (Dravet’s Syndrome) was found to be the cause of nine of the 11 cases from the 1982 report. When concern developed that vaccines might cause autism, numerous population analyses failed to show a connection between vaccines and autism. When a mercury preservative was proposed as a cause of vaccine-related injury, no scientific evidence was ever discovered that linked permanent injury with thimerosal, which has been used to prevent contamination of vaccines since the onset of the vaccine program.
Today, we have epidemics of measles and whooping cough because families are refusing to allow their children to receive recommended vaccines. These epidemics are preventable, but not unless over 90 percent of children receive recommended vaccines.
Christian Science is the only religion that clearly states
that followers must rely upon faith to prevent and heal disease – that they should not receive immunizations to prevent disease or medical care to cure disease. Child advocates have fought Christian Science adherents in state legislatures and courts to assure that children with life-threatening diseases (cancer, bacterial meningitis, diabetes) can receive the medical care they need. There is a cemetery in Oregon that is testimony to what happens when children with life-threatening diseases are denied standard medical care in the name of religion.
Most state governments have passed laws stating that freedom of religion cannot be used as a reason to deny children necessary medical care. Yet most states allow religious exemptions to childhood vaccines. Childhood vaccines are key to children experiencing optimal health and to our population experiencing good health. Religious freedom advocates are choosing religious freedom over public health, and that is what caused the bill to end religious objections to vaccines to be pulled from debate in our General Assembly this week. The vast majority of our religions do not, in their creeds and policies, state that vaccines are taboo. Therefore, nearly all families in North Carolina have no religious grounds upon which to stand when they refuse to allow their children to be immunized.
I would hope the General Assembly would realize that we should not allow religious exemptions to childhood vaccines in our state and that our leaders would have the courage to introduce straightforward legislation to assure that all our children are fully immunized, except for those rare children who cannot receive vaccines because of definite medical contraindications.
David T. Tayloe Jr., M.D., lives in Goldsboro.