Lawmakers are afraid to take on anti-vaxxers. Now NC has a bigger problem

North Carolina lawmakers have certainly been unafraid in recent years to take on controversial issues — and each other. But they’ve been strikingly timid in the face of a small but vocal group: anti-vaxxer parents who flood their inboxes and mailboxes when the legislature considers measures to tighten vaccination rules.

The result is a growing problem in our state. A report this week by North Carolina Public Radio/WUNC shows that the number of unvaccinated children in our state has increased steadily and alarmingly in the past half-dozen years. Most of that growth has come from parents claiming a religious exemption — a common way to get around N.C. law requiring all students who attend schools to be vaccinated for measles, mumps and other diseases. Unlike medical exemptions to vaccinations, which require a note from a doctor, claiming a religious exemption is easy. Parents only have to supply the name and date of birth of the child to be exempted. No explanation of the religious objection — or even evidence of religious affiliation or faith — is required.

It’s a system asking to be gamed, which might explain why about 1.5 percent — or one in every 300 students — were able to claim the religious exemption in 2018-19, as WUNC reported. The exemption rates are highest in the western part of the state, including Polk County, which led North Carolina with a 10.2 percent religious exemption rate. In Mecklenburg County, the rate was 2.1 percent of students, with 1.4 percent claiming a religious exemption in Wake County. Overall, 80 of North Carolina’s 100 counties had a higher percentage of parents claiming such an exemption than in the 2011-12 school year.

It’s far from just a North Carolina problem. States across the country are grappling with similar upswings in vaccination exemptions, and not coincidentally, the U.S. experienced the worst measles outbreak this year in a quarter century. In some states, lawmakers have responded. Washington state lawmakers removed a “personal belief” exemption to vaccinations in May, and New York removed a religious exemption to vaccinations for public school students, instead allowing only students who have a medical exemption signed by a doctor.

North Carolina, which came close to closing the religious loophole in 2015, should revisit the issue. Most major mainstream religions — including all Christian denominations — have no prohibition on vaccinations, and many advocate for immunization, according to a study from the medical journal Vaccine. At the least, N.C. lawmakers should amend the law to require parents claiming a religious exemption to show membership in a denomination with beliefs or teachings that preclude a health care practitioner from providing medical treatment or immunizations to a child.

We appreciate parents who are attentive about what goes into their children, but objections to vaccines are not based on science, which has thoroughly discredited the notion that immunizations are unsafe and cause autism. Anti-vaccination parents have been duped by misinformation and falsehoods that play on their fears, and denying vaccines not only leaves their children vulnerable to the dangers of measles, it endangers those who have legitimate medical issues with vaccinations or weak immune systems because of chemotherapy and other treatments.

That threat is growing. With a new school year set to begin in North Carolina, lawmakers need to stiffen their spines and act.