Say it with me now: Vaccines don't cause autism. There's loads of legitimate, peer-reviewed scientific studies to show that no link between vaccines and autism exists. If anything, the science only reaffirms the efficacy and importance of vaccinating children for the benefit of herd immunity. And yet, the number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children is on the rise, according to a 2016 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. In some parts of the United States, parents who make this choice for their children could face fines and jail time. Where can parents be fined or jailed for not vaccinating their kids? Despite the overwhelming evidence that vaccines benefit public health, no states have laws on the books to jail or fine parents who choose not to vaccinate their children.
There's one reason not to vaccinate that makes total sense: If a child has legitimate medical reasons, such as allergies to part or all of a particular vaccine, obviously, they shouldn't be vaccinated. But there are various other reasons parents will cite to prevent their child from being vaccinated, some with less legal ground than others. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 47 states allow parents to claim vaccine exemptions on the basis of religious beliefs, as of 2015. Similarly, only 15 states allow vaccine exemptions for personal or philosophical beliefs.
While laws punishing parents for non-compliance with compulsory vaccinations have expanded globally, many American anti-vaxx parents cite compulsory vaccinations as violations of the 14th Amendment — despite the fact that courts have ruled that mandatory vaccines don't violate the Constitution. When vaccines are mandated, public health wins — as three states have demonstrated.
Mississippi has one of the strictest vaccine laws in the United States and as a result, it has the highest rates of vaccination compared to the rest of the country. When one thinks of "public health leader," Mississippi isn't the first state that comes to mind, but clearly, the state's adoption of strict laws in favor of public health has catapulted it to the top of vaccination compliance charts year after year.
Likewise, after California passed a similar law requiring that nearly all schoolchildren must be vaccinated, vaccination rates skyrocketed while disease rates plummeted — and all this in just the first year that California has mandated vaccinations for school-aged children.
Meanwhile, a grassroots group of West Virginians are working to try and save their state's strict vaccination law. Currently, West Virginia only allows medical exemptions for vaccinations, but a bill introduced into the state senate this year seeks to broaden exemptions to include those based on religious and personal beliefs.
The United States lags in vaccination rates compared to the rest of the world, despite being one of the most medically- and economically-developed nations. It shouldn't take laws punishing parents who don't vaccinate their children to keep America's kids healthy — instead, a commitment to the greater good of public health should be a parent's first choice.