This week’s report that a number of schools on the Island have high exemption rates for vaccines is troubling.
According to the latest data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Dukes County has the highest exemption rate in the state among kindergarteners by a large margin. The exemption rate on the Island is over 6 percent; Franklin County is the closest behind the Vineyard, with 4 percent.
Schools in Chilmark, Edgartown, West Tisbury, and the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School are all within the top 25 highest exemption rates in Massachusetts; almost one in every four kindergartners at the Chilmark School received an exemption for at least one vaccine, the second highest rate of every elementary school in the entire state.
The vast majority of these exemptions are reportedly for religious reasons.
It’s hard to believe that religion played a role in all of these decisions by Chilmark parents. Some religions have shown resistance to vaccines, like the Orthodox Jewish community or the Dutch Reformed Church, but it’s unlikely those communities are thriving on the Island.
In comments to The Times, school officials acknowledge that religion isn’t what’s behind parents’ choice to not vaccinate their children. In her comments, Chilmark School Principal Susan Stevens said that some parents prefer not to overload their children with a number of vaccines all at once, and instead space them apart. That may be true, but it has nothing to do with religion.
It’s safe to assume that parents are feigning religion and imposing personal choice — likely based on “online research” and fringe theories. And they are playing with fire.
Vaccines could arguably be one of the greatest inventions of mankind. Inoculation from some viruses has kept incredibly dangerous and crippling diseases out of the public since the discovery of a vaccine against smallpox at the end of the 1700s. Smallpox led to the collapse of entire civilizations; it’s believed to have killed 1 in 3 people it infected, and left survivors scarred. Its wrath was felt around the world for centuries.
But now we don’t have to think about smallpox, because of the creation of a vaccine and the introduction of inoculation.
There are obviously other viruses and diseases that have popped up since smallpox, like polio and measles, each with devastating qualities. Those, too, were nearly wiped off the planet, but because some communities have been hesitant to vaccinate, they have threatened comebacks; some 600 individuals in New York City in 2018 and 2019 were diagnosed with measles. Polio made headlines recently with cases reported in First World countries including the U.S., Japan, and the U.K.
We don’t want to live in a world where these viruses persist. By not getting inoculated, we are at risk of not reaching herd immunity.
The misuse of the religious exemption is selfish, dangerous, and harmful to the entire community. Herd immunity is an essential pillar of public health. The idea that one can withdraw at will is both wrong-headed and beside the point. We get vaccinated because the health of the entire community depends on it.
Not only is it dangerous — using religion to excuse a child from getting a vaccine is deceitful. It undermines the significance of true religious exemptions.
And the idea that the unvaccinated can rightly say, “See, I told you,” when the vaccinated get sick — as we’ve seen recently with COVID-19 — is also just plain wrong. When there is no herd immunity, a virus is allowed to spread much more freely.
The idea that Chilmark ranks so high in the state for exemptions — in a community where parents have likely had every opportunity for a good education — is not only embarrassing, it’s sad. Science has proven again and again that vaccines work to build up immunity for a community, when there is broad buy-in.
For better or worse, the schools are the gatekeepers of public health, and they are disinclined to stand up to the parents involved. They have education to worry about. But state lawmakers do have an opportunity to show leadership.
A bill has been filed that proposes ending religious exemptions for students in all public, private, and charter schools. If it becomes law, Chilmark and our other Island schools will likely see their exemption rates plummet.
In Maine, voters supported a similar measure with nearly 75 percent of the vote, and in the years following, exemptions for vaccines dropped from 6 percent down to 1 percent. Mississippi schools, where religious exemptions were forbidden, had some of the best inoculation rates in the country; however, a judge recently ordered Mississippi to abandon that rule, and to allow religious exemptions. It’s likely the state’s inoculation rates will suffer as a result.
It is shocking that a community as well off as Chilmark has such hesitation to vaccines, and it’s unfortunate. We hope that state lawmakers can step in and make an impact.