New York will no longer allow parents to refuse vaccinations for their children because of religious reasons after the state became the center of the worst measles outbreak in decades.
The state legislature approved a bill Thursday that will require all children attending school or daycare to receive vaccinations, unless they could not be safely vaccinated because of a medical issue. Gov. Andrew Cuomo immediately signed it into law.
“I understand freedom of religion. We all do. We respect it. I’ve heard the anti-vaxxers’ theory, but I believe both are overwhelmed by the public health risk,” Cuomo told reporters Wednesday.
The state has recorded 854 cases of measles since September in outbreaks centered in Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City and Rockland County. Health officials in both areas have called the outbreaks a crisis that risks the safety of the public — particularly infants, pregnant women, elderly people, and those with compromised immune systems, such as patients with cancer.
The outbreaks have been fueled by misinformation, including false claims that vaccines cause autism or that vaccination is contrary to Jewish law. In response, the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America stressed Judaism’s value on preserving human life, and urged parents to vaccinate their children following the recommendations of their pediatricians.
“There are halachic obligations to care for one’s own health as well as to take measures to prevent harm and illness to others, and Jewish law defers to the consensus of medical experts in determining and prescribing appropriate medical responses to illness and prevention,” its statement said.
The vast majority of Jewish parents do vaccinate their children, and proponents of ending the religious exemption said it was being misused by a strident anti-vaccine minority.
“Here in New York, we protect vulnerable kids and our community — and we reject misinformation and junk science,” state Sen. Brad Hoylman, a sponsor of the bill, said after it passed.
Thursday’s votes drew a raucous crowd of anti-vaccine protesters, who at times shouted down lawmakers.
Most states in the US allow parents to skip vaccinating their kids because of their religion or personal beliefs. But recent outbreaks of preventable diseases are testing those laws, and a number of states are considering changes.
In 2016, after a high-profile measles outbreak at Disneyland, California ended its religious exemption. Public health officials have considered the move a success; vaccination rates went up.