Some school districts in the U.S. are booting unvaccinated students from campuses where infectious-disease cases have been confirmed, as the spread of measles accelerates in some states.
Birmingham Public Schools in Michigan recently told families with students at Derby Middle School that students who are unvaccinated against measles have to stay out of school for 21 days after one child was diagnosed with the disease.
In Kentucky, 32 cases of chickenpox at Our Lady of the Assumption Church and Academy in Walton resulted in unvaccinated students being removed from school in March for three weeks, the time it would take for symptoms to appear. An 18-year-old unvaccinated student lost a lawsuit challenging the ban on religious beliefs.
A growing antivaccine movement, which some health officials say has contributed to outbreaks of diseases once declared eliminated, or at least drastically reduced, has prompted schools to implore parents to vaccinate children. Some pediatricians are turning away unvaccinated children.
“People not vaccinated are the primary reasons we're seeing measles cases now,” said Amanda Cohn, a senior adviser for vaccines at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We have lots of science that tell us the vaccines are very safe. However, there are stories that sort of can be more powerful than our data.”
The CDC tracks vaccination exemptions for medical, religious and philosophical reasons for kindergartners, the grade that typically has entrance requirements, and the data show an increase in recent years. While the vast majority of kindergartners are immunized, health-care professionals are concerned that vaccine exemptions continue to creep up.
About 81,000 kindergartners in 45 states and the District of Columbia were exempt from one or more required vaccines, for a median of 2.2%, in the 2017-18 school year, up from 1.1% in 2009-10. Information wasn't available for several states.
Most exemptions were for nonmedical reasons, according to the CDC. Almost all states grant religious exemptions, while 17 allow philosophical exemptions, such as for personal or moral beliefs, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures published in January.
In New York City, 285 cases of measles have been confirmed through April 8, with the vast majority of children under 18 and nearly all in the Orthodox Jewish community. The city health department this past week ordered all yeshivas in certain affected ZIP Codes to ban unvaccinated children or face possible fines and school closure.
Some groups are against vaccination mandates and any blanket bans on unvaccinated students.
“We're in America. We have a freedom of choice,” said Christina Hildebrand, founder of A Voice for Choice, a California- based group against vaccination requirements. She said school districts should evaluate individual cases for exposure before removing children.
School systems, including Birmingham, say they are following the direction of health departments in keeping unvaccinated students out of schools where infectious diseases are confirmed.
“We look forward to the return of all of our students as quickly as possible,” said Anne Cron, Birmingham schools spokeswoman. “The health and well-being of our students are top priority.”
Recent outbreaks have prompted the creation of bills in some states to make it harder to get vaccination exemptions for school-age children. In Maine, Oregon and Washington state, lawmakers are considering bills that would eliminate nonmedical exemptions for certain required vaccines.
BY TAWNELL D. HOBBS