Plan to Eliminate Religious and “Philosophical” Exemptions for Vaccines for Kids

State Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware) announced legislation designed to increase the number of Pennsylvania school children who are immunized against diseases that spread easily among groups, interrupt school life and threaten public health.

Pennsylvania law requires that children receive certain vaccinations before they may attend school. However, exemptions from that requirement exist for anyone who has a pre-existing health problem that conflicts with the immunization requirements, a religious objection to vaccines, or a philosophical exemption to vaccines, which is characterized in law as “a strong moral or ethical conviction similar to a religious belief.” Leach’s bill would eliminate the religious exemption and the “philosophical” exemption. Leach’s bill would not affect the medical exemption.

“The law requires us all to get vaccinated to attend school because that’s the only way we can protect the health of students who are medically unable to get a vaccination,” Leach said. “Vaccines are safe. The recent outbreak of mumps and measles reminds us that vaccines are absolutely essential to public health.”

“At the end of the day, our top priority has to be keeping our citizens safe,” Leach said. “And when assessing how to best do that, we have an obligation to respect the scientific consensus and act rationally. All of the science says that vaccines save many lives and stop the spread of easily-preventable but deadly diseases. It would be legislative malpractice not to do all we can to ensure that our children are protected.”

“Some claim that vaccines cause autism, but according to all research and most doctors and scientists, that’s simply not true,” Leach continued. “Vaccines prevent disease. The risks are far greater for your child when you choose not to vaccinate, and not vaccinating puts others at risk too.”

Leach today circulated his proposal to Senate colleagues in the form of a memo. He also penned this Op-Ed on the subject. For the next few weeks, all Senators will be able to co-sponsor his proposal if they wish. Once the co-sponsorship process is complete, Leach will introduce the policy’s language, at which time the proposal will be numbered and assigned to a Senate committee for consideration.

Since Leach first introduced a bill to eliminate our state’s philosophical exemption to vaccine requirements in 2015, Pennsylvania has improved its vaccination rate of school children. However, the data shows an increase in the rate at which students refuse vaccinations, citing the statutory moral or religious exemption. While our statewide vaccination rate is acceptable, there are specific communities across the state that have dangerously low vaccination rates. This trend threatens the health and safety of the people of our Commonwealth who cannot get vaccinated due to pre-existing medical conditions.

To protect our most vulnerable citizens, the state needs to achieve herd immunity. The concept of herd immunity is based on the fact that germs travel quickly through a community, causing people to become sick and possibly leading to an outbreak. Vaccinations combat this by reducing the ability for germs to travel, which decreases the chances of an outbreak. As a result, individuals who are unable to get a vaccination for medical reasons are protected from encountering these germs.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the level of immunization in a population required to achieve herd immunity differs from disease to disease, depending on facts like the effectiveness of a given vaccine, the length of the immunity provided by a given vaccine and population dynamics.

This bill is the first of its kind ever introduced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

In some corners of social media, anti-vaccination advocacy groups argue that vaccines cause autism. This belief stems from a fraudulent research paper published by Andrew Wakefield, a discredited former British doctor who became an anti-vaccine activist. Wakefield falsely claimed there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Wakefield was later removed from the UK’s medical register. Study afterstudy testing Wakefield’s conclusion have failed to show any link between vaccines and autism.

Current Pennsylvania law requires immunization for diphtheria, tetanus, poliomyelitis, rubeola, rubella, mumps, hepatitis B, chickenpox, whooping cough and meningococcal disease.