What Are the Vaccine Exemption Laws in Your State?

March 24, 2015
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Change rarely comes fast around hot-button issue in American politics, but over the past five years, the political landscape around childhood vaccinations has shifted dramatically.

Take the question of whether a parent should be able to exempt their child from the mandatory vaccine schedules required to attend public school. When FRONTLINE first investigated the issue five years ago in The Vaccine War, public health officials were struggling to explain the importance of herd immunity, the idea that the higher the vaccination rate of a community — or “herd” — is, the harder it is for a virus to spread. Today, with measles outbreaks like the one that started at Disneyland unfolding in 17 states, battle lines are being redrawn.

In California, the public face of this fight is Rhett Krawitt, who at just seven-years-old has lived with leukemia for most of his young life. Although his cancer is in remission, his treatment has left his immune system too weak for vaccination. Until he regains his strength, Krawitt’s health largely depends on herd immunity.

The trouble, however, is that a high-rate of non-medical exemptions in Marin County, where Krawitt lives, may be putting his life at risk. His parents are lobbying for an end to such exemptions. As his father, Carl Krawitt, explains in the below scene from tonight’s newly updated version of The Vaccine War, “The story isn’t about Rhett anymore … It’s about the hundreds of kids currently with suppressed immune systems that rely on the science of herd immunity.”

While the fight in California may be the most high profile in the nation, it’s far from the only one. In 2015, at least 19 states have introduced legislation addressing two of the primary avenues for a vaccination exemption: personal belief exemptions and religious exemptions.

In all, 48 states currently allow for a religious exemption, and 20 states grant philosophical waivers for anyone who objects on the basis of personal, moral or other beliefs. In states like Connecticut, all a parent must do to obtain a religious exemption is fill out a form with their name, their child’s name, their address and phone number. Philosophical exemptions can be slightly tougher to obtain, with several states requiring parents first meet with a physician to discuss the risks and benefits of vaccines.

The proposals moving through state legislatures would change much of the landscape. In Arizona, for example, a new law would require school administrators to post the immunization rates of students online, while a bill in Missouri would require that parents be notified directly if a student at their child’s school has not been vaccinated. A bill in Illinois would make religious exemptions dependent on first obtaining a notarized letter from a “religious official,” while Rhode Island, Maryland and Vermont have sought to repeal faith-based waivers altogether. Proposals in Maine and Washington, like the measure in California, have sought to end the personal belief exemption.

The graphic below shows which exemptions are allowed across the nation, and which states have moved this year to address such laws. Scroll through to find your state, and remember to watch The Vaccine War tonight on FRONTLINE, beginning at 10 p.m. EST on-air and online. Local listings are available here.


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