Vanishing Vaccinations: Why Are So Many Americans Opting Out of Vaccinating Their Children?

Vaccinations against life-threatening diseases are one of the greatest public health achievements in history. Literally millions of premature deaths have been prevented, and countless more children have been saved from disfiguring illness. While vaccinations carry unavoidable risks, the medical, social and economic benefits they confer have led all fifty states to enact compulsory childhood vaccination laws to stop the spread of preventable diseases. Today, however, vaccines are becoming a victim of their success-many individuals have never witnessed the debilitating diseases that vaccines protect against, allowing complacency toward immunization requirements to build. Antivaccination sentiment is growing fast in the United States, in large part due to the controversial and hotly disputed link between immunizations and autism. The internet worsens fears regarding vaccination safety, as at least a dozen websites publish alarming information about the risks of vaccines. Increasing numbers of parents are refusing immunizations for their children and seeking legally sanctioned exemptions instead, apparently fearing vaccines more than the underlying diseases that they protect against. A variety of factors are at play: religious and philosophical beliefs, freedom and individualism, misinformation about risk, and overperception of risk.

State legislatures and health departments now face a difficult challenge: respecting individual rights and freedoms while also safeguarding the public welfare. Nearly all states allow vaccination exemptions for religious reasons and a growing number provide “philosophical” opt-outs as well. However, in all but a handful of jurisdictions, neither objection is seriously documented or verified. Often, the law requires a parent to do no more than simply check a box indicating she does not wish her child to receive immunizations. The problem is exacerbated by financial incentives schools have to encourage students to opt out of vaccinations. The rise in parents opting out has caused the AMA grave concern, with many experts decrying the rise of so-called “exemptions of convenience.” In some areas, nearly one out of five children have not received their recommended vaccines. The consequences are serious not only for those unprotected children, but for the rest of society as well. “Herd immunity” is threatened as more and more parents free ride off of the community’s dwindling immunity, and outbreaks of diseases thought to have been conquered have already occurred. Lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers threaten them with bankruptcy, costs are being externalized onto the healthcare and legal systems, and vulnerable populations are suffering harm or even death. In the interests of social welfare, state legislatures and health departments should consider methods to ensure that the exemption process is carefully tailored to prevent check-thebox opt-outs of convenience, while still allowing exemptions for those with earnest and informed convictions or medical reasons.