In light of a recent rise in previously eradicated illnesses such as measles and whooping cough, the state of Illinois is looking into further restricting religious exemptions that allow students in public schools to avoid vaccinations.
House Bill 422 was tabled in April for further discussion and would require any parent applying for a religious vaccination exemption to take an online course detailing the importance of vaccinations; it also would allow schools to exclude unvaccinated children from certain activities in case of an outbreak. State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, sponsored the bill.
There have been 1,234 cases of measles reported in the U.S. this year, which is up from 372 in 2018. While Illinois has had nine cases, Regional Office of Education Superintendent Chris Dvorak said Illinois' lower number can be attributed to some of the strictest vaccine exemption laws in the country.
“I think it’s less common (for parents to use the exemption) after 2015,” Dvorak said. “Prior to that, parents didn’t even have to state a reason, so the state actually tightened things up by saying you can’t just philosophically disagree with vaccinating. It has to be tied to specific religious reasons.”
The Illinois Department of Education performed a survey of all schools within the state, whether they’re public, parochial or private. Of the 2,131,270 students enrolled in the state, 15,782 are not in compliance with the state’s vaccination requirements.
Of the 13,512 students enrolled within La Salle County in 2018-19, 69 students are identified as noncompliant (excluding data from Earlville schools, which was misreported).
For the measles vaccination, 100 students opted not to have the vaccination for religious exemptions, 14 were noncompliant and seven didn't receive the vaccination for medical reasons.
Earlier this year, the Illinois Department of Public Health worked with the Illinois State Board of Education to conduct a more in-depth data analysis of vaccination rates. This study focused on schools at risk for outbreaks due to student vaccination rates of less than 95%. The study aims to understand why a school is experiencing a lower vaccination rate and identify who, specifically, is not being vaccinated. The agency worked with local health departments across the state to meet and talk with school officials and health care providers to learn about barriers that limit vaccination and identify additional opportunities to increase rates.
The concept promotes "herd immunity."
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, herd immunity means that while a whole portion of the population isn’t vaccinated against a contagious illness, if the number is low enough those unvaccinated will never be exposed to the illness. If fewer people vaccinate, they put themselves at risk as well as those who vaccinate, as illness can evolve over time to overcome the function of the vaccine.
“School districts have a list of students that don’t partake in vaccinations and if they do have an outbreak, that kid isn’t allowed to attend school,” Dvorak said. “They can tell the student they can’t be there because of a health danger. They suspect a communicable disease with a child that doesn’t have a vaccine because they’re a risk to themselves and other students. Those are good safeguards.”
Dr. Rosvida San Gabriel, a pediatrician who has been practicing in Streator for nearly 15 years, said she wishes the state would be more aggressive in getting rid of the vaccine exemption for religious religious reasons; the 2015 law eliminated the philosophical exemption.
San Gabriel cites a more restrictive law that has been passed in California that disallows for any philosophical or religious exemptions and only allows for medical exemptions. Any doctor that grants five or more exemptions in a year will be subject to a review and schools that have an immunization rate less than 95% would be subject to heavy scrutiny.
San Gabriel said it’s not completely unusual for a new mother to show up to her office with papers in hand asking for an exemption; she won’t grant it based on arguments regarding myths or unsubstantial reports surrounding vaccinations.
“They come in with this misinformation and when I say 'no' they pull the religion card,” San Gabriel said. “How do you define religion? If I say I can’t sign the paper they pull religion out. It’s frustrating.”
San Gabriel said celebrities coming out against vaccinations, such as Jessica Biel, caused the most recent uptick in people asking for exemptions, but it's been going on for years. She noted rumors of links to autism are traced to ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield, who conducted his trials using subjects he paid to give the answers he wanted.
“There are some doctors that will just sign the exemptions because they don’t want to upset the parents,” San Gabriel said. “Fortunately, we haven’t had to be that way. We’re pro-vaccine. Even if you’re against vaccines, you should come talk to me anyway. I’m not going to be super hardline, I just want to help them come around.”