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NC Senators Aim To Eliminate Religious Exemption For Vaccines

National Conference of State Legislatures

Three state senators filed a bill Thursday to make it tougher for parents to avoid vaccinating their children. The bill would eliminate North Carolina's religious exemption for vaccines.

If enough people in a community are vaccinated, it creates what Senator Terry Van Duyn calls a shield of immunity. The idea is that even those who are not vaccinated, like infants, are protected from disease by the people around them who are.

"What is happening in Buncombe County is we are developing cracks in that shield because the number of people getting vaccinated is going down," she says.

Van Duyn's home county, which includes Asheville, now has the highest religious exemption rate in North Carolina: about 4 percent. Over the past decade, exemption rates have risen in other counties too, according to state data.

Because of that and the recent measles outbreak that started in California, Van Duyn, who's a Democrat, and two Republicans are sponsoring a bill to repeal the religious exemption in North Carolina.

Senator Jeff Tarte represents Mecklenburg County. 

"Your individual right can't put the entire population at risk," the Republican says.

He says Senate leaders support the bill. He also wants to hear from people who object.

Barbara Loe Fisher is one such person. She's the co-founder of a group in Virginia that opposes any attempt to restrict vaccine exemptions.

"Because vaccines are pharmaceutical products - they carry a risk of injury or death that can be greater for some people than others," she says.

Injuries from vaccines are possible – there's a federal court in Washington, D.C. set up specifically to compensate victims. But that happens a fraction of a fraction of the time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says severe reactions are so rare that it's difficult to even crunch a statistic about risk.  

Senator Tarte's wife has been a pediatrician for 30 years. At her practice, here's the number of problems he says there have been: 

"Zero reactions, adverse reactions to a vaccine in 30 years by 6 to 8 doctors," Tarte says.

On the other hand, Fisher says the numbers are underreported because some reactions are written off as coincidence.

Senator Van Duyn spent years researching that claim. She has a son with autism. In some cases, she says kids develop normally until an age that coincides with getting a bunch of vaccines. 

"It's just normal that parents could make that causal relationship, even if none exists," Van Duyn says. "And I just don't believe that one exists."

The science backs her up: there is no link between vaccines and autism.

If the North Carolina bill becomes law, the state would join two others in only allowing exemptions for medical reasons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Several more states are also considering legislation to limit exemptions.