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A coronavirus-related lesson: Religious exemptions on child vaccinations need to go

The rapid global outbreak of the highly contagious virus should put anti-vaxxers — science-denying parents who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated — to shame.

A health care worker administers the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.
In this March 2019 file photo, a health care worker administers the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.
AP file photo

Should anybody need further evidence that an infectious, potentially deadly disease can spread like wildfire, look no further than the coronavirus.

The global outbreak of this highly contagious virus should put anti-vaxxers — science-denying parents who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated — to shame.

As we write this, almost 90,000 people worldwide, including five people in Illinois and 100 in the United States as a whole, have become infected with COVID-19. The global death toll is 3,331.

Fortunately, the vast majority of people who contract the coronavirus will suffer only minor symptoms — fever, cough, shortness of breath — and recover quickly. And pharmaceutical companies are rushing to produce a vaccine to slow the virus’ spread, though it likely won’t be available for general use for more than a year.

The obvious lesson here is that vaccines, for all the pseudo-scientific claims to the contrary, are indispensable to maintaining public health.

Witness influenza: Thanks to the flu vaccine, millions of Americans every year are able to avoid contracting the flu. Thousands of flu-related deaths are averted. And those numbers would improve greatly if more than 45% of adults got an annual flu shot.

More unvaccinated children

Then, in contrast, consider the alarming resurgence of measles in the United States. Last year, almost 1,300 cases of measles were reported, the largest outbreak in 27 years. In 2012, there were just 55 cases. Last year’s huge increase was largely the result of fewer children being inoculated because of fears about vaccinations that have been thoroughly debunked.

Meanwhile in Illinois, there are hundreds of schools where too few children have been vaccinated against easily preventable childhood diseases like measles, mumps and chickenpox.

Medical professionals say vaccination rates of at least 95% are necessary to protect a community at large, but vaccination rates in some Illinois schools are just 50% or lower. When healthy children are not vaccinated, all children — but especially those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons — are put in greater danger.

Religious exemptions from an Illinois law requiring vaccinations are soaring in number. From 2016 through 2019, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education, measles vaccination exemptions rose from 15,652 to 19,169, polio exemptions rose from 15,130 to 18,690, and chickenpox exemptions rose from 16,050 to 20,244.

Stop soaring religious exemptions

We support legislation, introduced by State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, to eliminate all religious exemptions to vaccinations, as called for by the American Academy of Pediatrics. No one parent’s religious convictions — or anti-science militancy masquerading as religious conviction — should be allowed to put somebody else’s child in harm’s way.

We urge the Legislature to quickly pass Senate Bill 3668. And we urge Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who told us recently that he has taken no position on the bill, to sign it into law.

In doing so, Illinois would be joining five other states that already do not allow non-medical exemptions to vaccines: New York, California, Mississippi, West Virginia and Maine. Connecticut has taken steps this year to impose a similar ban.

As Steans points out, the courts have upheld such laws, ruling that in this matter public health trumps individual rights.

Steans’ bill also would also give minors who are 14 and older the right to be vaccinated without their parents’ consent. There’s precedent for that in Illinois law, which gives minors the power to consent to certain kinds of medical care, such as treatment for drug addiction and sexually transmitted diseases.

We can’t go back

The world is on edge as the coronavirus spreads, but nobody is really sure just how great the threat is.

We do understand, however, the very real danger of childhood communicable diseases such as polio and measles. And we know why many of these diseases are close to being eradicated — vaccinations.

We cannot allow that great good to be undone.

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