New York ends religious exemption from vaccinations in bid to fight measles outbreak

Vaccines
New York state has joined California, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi and Maine in banning religious exemptions from vaccinations

New York has ended religious exemptions from vaccinations, as the state at the epicentre of the worst measles outbreak in the US in 27 years continues its fight against the disease.

Politicians in Albany, the state capital, narrowly voted to end the religious exemptions on Thursday. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, immediately signed the bill into effect.

“While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health,” said Mr Cuomo, adding that the new law “will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks.”

The state cannot force any parents to vaccinate their children, but it can insist that only vaccinated children be allowed at schools and day care centres.

During the 2017-18 school year, 26,217 students in schools, child care centres and nurseries had religious exemptions, according to the New York State department of health.

A sign warns people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg on April 19, 2019 in New York City

The current measles outbreak has spread to 28 states, with more than 1,000 cases in total, the highest number since 1992, when more than 2,000 cases were recorded.

Highly contagious, measles can lead to serious complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Measles was eliminated in the US in 2000, but has made a comeback, with 1,022 cases reported to June 6 this year.

New York is the hardest-hit state, with 266 cases in Rockland County, just north of the city, and 588 cases in New York City itself. In both areas the cases are concentrated in Orthodox Jewish communities, which have a lower rate of vaccination than the general population, owing to suspicion of outside interference, and to the closed-nature of their societies which allows false rumours to spread.

Rabbis in both areas have been encouraging their followers to vaccinate their children, but even that has not had the desired impact.

Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, announcing a public health emergency in the city in April

New York now joins a small handful of states that do not allow exemptions from vaccinations on religious grounds, including California, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi and Maine.

A measles outbreak in 2015 in California led that state to revoke non-medical exemptions. Californian politicians are now considering tightening those restrictions and forcing parents to seek medical exemptions from the state department of public health, instead of from doctors.

The proposal gained attention this week when the actress Jessica Biel met with California politicians to lobby against the measure. She said in an Instagram post on Thursday that she supported vaccinations, but believed that families should have the “right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside their physicians”.

The American Medical Association announced on Thursday that it would step up its efforts to “incentivise states to eliminate non-medical exemptions.”