There is no question that vaccines have been successful in the elimination of formerly rampant childhood diseases such as smallpox and polio. However, since their invention, vaccines have drawn controversy for a range of reasons including safety concerns and religious objections. The debate is alive and well in South Dakota with legislators striking down measures to relax the mandatory childhood vaccination laws for families with philosophical objections to vaccinations.
As the laws currently stand, a parent may obtain an exemption from the vaccine requirement if:
- a physician certifies that the immunization would endanger the child’s life or health due to a medical condition; or
- the child’s religious teachings oppose vaccination.
The state’s health department granted 157 exemptions under the current law during the 2010-2011 school year. The rejected legislation, HB 1175 and HB 1259, would have added an additional exemption for parents who possess “personal beliefs that are opposed to immunization.” The exemption was opposed by the South Dakota State Medical Association, South Dakota Association of Health Care Organizations, South Dakota Nurses Association, as well as the South Dakota Health Department.
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees and points out that while most diseases children are vaccinated for have been reduced or eradicated in the population, the bacteria and viruses underlying those diseases still exist and can infect a non-vaccinated person. Dr. Maria Carrillo-Marquez, pediatric diseases specialist in South Dakota stated, “It’s very dangerous…By having a significant proportion of people immune to disease we are protecting the whole community.”
Bolstering those concerns are some communities, such as South Whidbey Island, Washington and parts of Southern California, where a larger-than-typical number of parents have elected to not immunize their children, and infectious disease outbreaks have been observed. Recently, Southern California saw the largest whooping cough outbreak in nearly 40 years. Eighty-eight people contracted pertussis in South Whidbey Island, where 72 percent of students at one local school did not have all or any of their vaccinations.
Supporters claim that vaccines are not as effective as they are purported to be, that foreign chemicals from inoculations could be harmful, and that children should be able to attain a natural immunity. Others argue that parents have the right to follow their own consciences regarding how they raise their children that may or may not relate to a religious faith. Some parents associate increased vaccinations with the growing prevalence of autism, attention deficit disorder and asthma, despite medical claims that such links have not been proven.
Barbara Loe Fisher, President of the National Vaccine Information Center, believes that doctors commonly discount children’s reactions to vaccines as being merely coincidental and that some children are more genetically vulnerable to having bad reactions to the inoculations. She asks, “Once you decide that individuals are expendable in the name of the greater good, how many is too many?”
With the legislature’s down vote, South Dakota remains one of 30 states without a “personal belief” exemption.