Faculty Focus

Religious Exemptions for Vaccines Endanger Us All

Those routine shots only really work when the whole community takes part, says Anthony Schlaff, MD, MPH, professor of public health and community medicine and director of public health programs.

Illustration: Ward Schumaker

The measles epidemic in the western United States earlier this year provides a good reminder that it is time to end the religious exemption for vaccination. It may also be time for physicians to change the way they educate their patients about vaccines.

First, we need to understand that government requires vaccination not to protect the individual, but to protect the community. Vaccines have failure rates—that is, what gives me and my family protection is not that I was vaccinated, but that everybody was. Despite the failure rate, enough of the community is immune so the disease cannot find room to spread. Combine the failure rate with a high-enough refusal rate, however, and the disease can spread, and even those who are immunized are at risk.

We can only protect individuals by demanding they participate in protecting everyone.

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