Sabrina Rahim doesn't practice any particular faith, but she had
no problem signing a letter declaring that because of her deeply
held religious beliefs, her four-year-old son should be exempt from
the vaccinations required to enter preschool.
She is among a small but growing number of parents around the
country who are claiming religious exemptions to avoid vaccinating
their children when the real reason may be skepticism of the shots
or concern they can cause other illnesses. Some of these parents
say they are being forced to lie because of the way the vaccination
laws are written in their states.
Sabrina Rahim, right, helps
her son Ameer Salim, 13 months, up a slide, as her son Zain Salim,
four, left, leads the way, Friday, Sept. 7, 2007 at a playground in
Boston. (photo: China Daily/Agencies)
"It's misleading," Rahim admitted, but she said she fears that
earlier vaccinations may be to blame for her son's autism. "I find
it very troubling, but for my son's safety, I feel this is the only
option we have."
An Associated Press examination of states' vaccination records
and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found
that many states are seeing increases in the rate of religious
exemptions claimed for kindergartners.
"Do I think that religious exemptions have become the default?
Absolutely," said Dr. Paul Offit, head of infectious diseases at
Children's Hospital in Philadelphia and one of the harshest critics
of the anti-vaccine movement. He said the resistance to vaccines is
"an irrational, fear-based decision."
The number of exemptions is extremely small in percentage terms
and represents just a few thousand of the 3.7 million children
entering kindergarten in 2005, the most recent figure
But public health officials say it takes only a few people to
cause an outbreak that can put large numbers of lives at risk.
"When you choose not to get a vaccine, you're not just making a
choice for yourself, you're making a choice for the person sitting
next to you," said Dr. Lance Rodewald, director of the CDC's
Immunization Services Division.
All states have some requirement that youngsters be immunized
against such childhood diseases as measles, mumps, chickenpox,
diphtheria and whooping cough.
Twenty-eight states, including Florida, Massachusetts and New
York, allow parents to opt out for medical or religious reasons
only. Twenty other states, among them California, Pennsylvania,
Texas and Ohio, also allow parents to cite personal or
philosophical reasons. Mississippi and West Virginia allow
exemptions for medical reasons only.
From 2003 to 2007, religious exemptions for kindergartners
increased, in some cases doubled or tripled, in 20 of the 28 states
that allow only medical or religious exemptions, the AP found.
Religious exemptions decreased in three of these states — Nebraska,
Wyoming, South Carolina — and were unchanged in five others.
The rate of exemption requests is also increasing.
For example, in Massachusetts, the rate of those seeking
exemptions has more than doubled in the past decade — from 0.24
percent, or 210, in 1996 to 0.60 percent, or 474, in 2006.
In Florida, 1,249 children claimed religious exemptions in 2006,
almost double the 661 who did so just four years earlier. That was
an increase of 0.3 to 0.6 percent of the student population.
Georgia, New Hampshire and Alabama saw their rates double in the
past four years.
The numbers from the various states cannot be added up with
accuracy. Some states used a sampling of students to gauge levels
of vaccinations. Others surveyed all or nearly all students.
Fifteen of the 20 states that allow both religious and
philosophical exemptions have seen increases in both, according to
the AP's findings.
While some parents — Christian Scientists and certain
fundamentalists, for example — have genuine religious objections to
medicine, it is clear that others are simply distrustful of
Some parents say they are not convinced vaccinations help.
Others fear the vaccinations themselves may make their children
sick and even cause autism.
Even though government-funded studies have found no link between
vaccines and autism, loosely organized groups of parents and even
popular cultural figures such as radio host Don Imus have voiced
concerns. Most of the furor on Internet message boards and Web
sites has been about a mercury-based preservative once used in
vaccines that some believe contributes to neurological
Unvaccinated children can spread diseases to others who have not
gotten their shots or those for whom vaccinations provided
In 1991, a religious group in Philadelphia that chose not to
immunize its children touched off an outbreak of measles that
claimed at least eight lives and sickened more than 700 people,
And in 2005, an Indiana girl who had not been immunized picked
up the measles virus at an orphanage in Romania and unknowingly
brought it back to a church group. Within a month, the number of
people infected had grown to 31 in what health officials said was
the nation's worst outbreak of the disease in a decade.
Rachel Magni, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mother in Newton,
Mass., said she is afraid vaccines could harm her children and
"overwhelm their bodies." Even though she attends a Protestant
church that allows vaccinations, Magni pursued a religious
exemption so her four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son, who
have never been vaccinated, could attend preschool.
"I felt that the risk of the vaccine was worse than the risk of
the actual disease," she said.
Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National
Vaccine Information Center, one of the leading vaccine skeptic
groups, said she discourages parents from pursuing religious
exemptions unless they are genuine. Instead, Fisher said, parents
should work to change the laws in their states.
"We counsel that if you do not live in a state that has a
philosophical exemption, you still have to obey the law," she
Even so, Fisher said, she empathizes with parents tempted to
claim the religious exemption: "If a parent has a child who has had
a deterioration after vaccination and the doctor says that's just a
coincidence, you have to keep vaccinating this child, what is the
parent left with?"
Offit said he knows of no state that enforces any penalty for
parents who falsely claim a religious exemption.
In 2002, four Arkansas families challenged the state's policy
allowing religious exemptions only if a parent could prove
membership in a recognized religion prohibiting vaccination. The
court struck down the policy and the state began allowing both
religious and philosophical exemptions.
Religious and medical exemptions, which had been climbing,
plummeted, while the number of philosophical exemptions spiked.
In the first year alone, more parents applied for philosophical
exemptions than religious and medical exemptions combined. From
2001 to 2004, the total number of students seeking exemptions in
Arkansas more than doubled, from 529 to 1,145.
Dr. Janet Levitan, a pediatrician in Brookline, Mass., said she
counsels patients who worry that vaccines could harm their children
to pursue a religious exemption if that is their only option.
"I tell them if you don't want to vaccinate for philosophical
reasons and the state doesn't allow that, then say it's for
religious reasons," she said. "It says you have to state that
vaccination conflicts with your religious belief. It doesn't say
you have to actually have that religious belief. So just state
(Agencies via China Daily October 19, 2007)