Even though vaccines are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there are no federal laws requiring parents to vaccinate their children.
Instead, vaccination requirements are regulated at the state level, and every state has laws that require children to be vaccinated against certain infectious diseases before attending school or daycare. Typically, state requirements apply to both public and private schools, and some include colleges and universities.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia also have exemption provisions, which exclude certain children from the vaccination requirements based on medical, religious, or philosophical reasons.
Currently, four states — California, Mississippi, New York, and West Virginia — only allow medical exemptions, and several others are currently considering legislation that would tighten vaccine exemptions. Let's take a look at which states have recently updated their vaccine laws as well as the states that could see updates in the near future.
There were more than 300 vaccine-related bills introduced in 2019, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which was a huge increase from previous years. Bills proposing to eliminate religious exemptions for vaccines were introduced in 14 states.
New Jersey considered legislation banning religious exemptions from vaccines in 2019, but the effort failed in the Senate after fierce opposition from protesters. Like similar legislation in other states, the bill was proposed following a measles outbreak in the state in 2018. The sponsor of the bill said that a new version of the bill would be introduced.
West Virginia is one of the few states that considered a bill in 2019 that would loosen the state's vaccine exemption policy. The state currently only allows medical exemptions for vaccines, but the bill sought to add religious or personal objections to the list of excusable exemptions. The measure failed, but several similar bills have already been introduced this session.
Although bills proposing to expand vaccination exemptions are rarer, the president of the National Vaccine Information Center, which takes a pro-exemption stance, told CNN it supported 77 vaccine-related bills during the 2019 legislative session. This was the highest number since it began tracking bills in 2010.
Interestingly, this is a political issue that does not fall completely within party lines. Members on both sides of the political arena have introduced bills for (and against) vaccines.
Doctors and public health experts say bills limiting exemptions to childhood vaccines are needed to prevent outbreaks of diseases such as measles that are becoming increasingly common and typically center on areas with high concentrations of unvaccinated individuals. They say vaccines are safe and effective, and extremely important.
On the other hand, anti-vaccine families vehemently oppose laws that make it more difficult for children to qualify for vaccine exemptions, arguing that it is a government infringement on civil liberties that could be putting their children in danger. Some still make the argument that vaccines cause autism, which has been debunked by more than a dozen peer-reviewed studies.
Ultimately, public opinion still strongly supports vaccinations, with 88% of adult Americans saying the benefits of the MMR vaccine outweigh the risks, according to a recent survey by Pew Research Center. But the small minority who oppose are doing so loudly, and some lawmakers are listening.