Religious exemptions in question during outbreaks

With the increase in outbreaks of once-eradicated diseases, medical professionals, religious leaders and everyday individuals are examining the validity of religious exemptions to vaccinations.

Cases of measles spiked to 71 individuals, including many children under the age of 10, in Washington, making it “the largest measles outbreak in more than 20 years,” according to Q13 News, the Fox affiliate for Seattle.

Looking at the situation in Washington, Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, believes that religious exemptions are to blame. “If you look at the major religions, I can’t think of any mainstream prohibitions against vaccines, maybe some sects or spinoffs,” Hotez said in an interview with Religion News Service. “These are important times where religious leaders need to speak out on behalf of vaccines. We need an interfaith statement on vaccines.”

Kristin McCloud, MSN, RN, is an assistant professor of nursing at John Brown University who stresses the importance of both vaccines and patient rights in her courses. “Vaccines provide individual protection from potentially serious diseases as well as public health protection from communicable diseases and outbreaks … Vaccinations protect us, those immediately around us, persons who cannot receive immunizations … the community and state, and even protect humans on a global scale,” McCloud said.

Devony Audet, resident of Spokane, Wash. and mother of three, said in an interview with Religion News Service that she will not comply with new laws to restrict non-medical exemptions if they are passed. “No city government or federal government can tell me what medical procedures are necessary for my children. That’s my choice. God made me their mother and I will not vaccinate [for MMR] even if it means my children cannot go to public schools,” Audet said. Audet herself said she is not vaccinated because her Independent Baptist church is against it.

McCloud said that while patients have the right to refuse service, they must have valid reasons, even if those are religious beliefs. “Some religions address what types of medical care or interventions their members may receive; however, a thorough reading of their doctrine does not specifically mandate vaccine refusal,” McCloud said. “That’s not to say there are not people within certain religions who feel they cannot receive vaccines due to their faith, nor am I saying that no religions mandate refusal.  I am saying I know of no major religion, Christianity, Buddhism, Jehovah’s Witness … that mandates vaccine refusal.”

McCloud said that while refusing vaccinations is a legal right, she also believes “that my personal rights cannot supersede everything else. If I choose not to vaccinate my child, I should be willing to accept any limitations that choice may bring. For example, my unvaccinated child may very well threaten the welfare of others.”

While she personally believes that everyone who is able should be vaccinated, Emery Johnson, sophomore nursing major, recognizes patient rights. “I know as a future nurse, I will have patients who will refuse vaccines for those religious reasons and it’s one of those things as a nurse … I will have to advocate for my patients no matter what I feel,” Johnson said.

Jared Frickenstein, freshman nursing major, sees vaccinations as a responsibility of a healthy community. “It is somewhat of our responsibility to not only protect ourselves but to protect the people around us because of that fact that not everyone can get vaccinated,” Frickenstein said. “That means that our actions and the choice we make for that, it doesn’t only affect us and our family, but it affects the lives of so many other people.”

Ultimately, every case is different, McCloud said, and each patient should receive individualized evaluation in light of their health and beliefs. “Unfortunately, there is no cut-and-dry, one-size-fits-all rule answer to this situation.  Therefore, there should be no cut-and-dry, one-size-fits-all consequence or punishment,” McCloud said. “Steps should be taken to preserve the individual’s health and personal liberties as well as the public’s health and right to live … without risking their life and health by catching preventable diseases.”