(Reuters) - Maine could soon prohibit parents from citing religious or personal beliefs to avoid vaccinating their children, making the U.S. state one of a half dozen cracking down during the nations’ largest measles outbreak in 25 years.
State legislatures in New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Minnesota and Iowa, are looking at similar bills, that would only allow exemptions from vaccinations for medical reasons as determined by the child’s doctor.
The United States has recorded at least 704 measles cases so far this year in outbreaks that U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has called "completely avoidable."
Azar and other officials have largely blamed the outbreaks on the spread of misinformation, including a belief debunked by scientific studies that vaccine ingredients can cause autism. This has led to pockets of lower-than-normal vaccination rates in some communities.
U.S. public health officials declared measles eliminated in 2000, meaning the disease was no longer a constant presence in the country. The current outbreak traces its roots to travelers to countries including Ukraine and Israel facing outbreaks.
Maine’s Democratic-controlled Senate could vote on the vaccine measure as early as Thursday. The state’s Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed it last month in a nearly party-line vote, with some Republicans arguing it represented inappropriate government intrusion into personal belief.
Ryan Tipping, a Democratic member of Maine’s House of Representatives who sponsored the bill, noted in an interview that no major U.S. religion forbids vaccination.
“I worked with a lot of people of very strong faiths on this bill, and, when people look, it’s hard to find a religious objection to the incredible amount of good that making these diseases far more rare has brought to the world,” Tipping said.
Governor Janet Mills, a Democrat, did not respond to questions about whether she would sign the bill into law if it passes the Senate.
It was unclear whether the similar bills in other states will pass. Some have been reintroduced after failing in earlier sessions.
Other states are considering less restrictive steps to increase vaccination rates. Washington is poised to pass a bill that would remove exemptions on personal grounds for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, while leaving in place a religious exemption.
Maine has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with 5 percent of kindergartners holding a non-medical exemption from vaccination, compared to a national average of 2 percent, according to CDC data.
The World Health Organization has said at least 95 percent of a community must be immunized against measles to achieve the “herd immunity” needed to protect those unable to get the vaccine such as infants and people with compromised immune systems.
No measles cases have been recorded in largely rural Maine since 2017, but state officials have been worried by outbreaks of whooping cough, another childhood disease that can be prevented by vaccination.
The largest U.S. measles outbreak this year has been in New York City, clustered in the Orthodox Jewish communities in the borough of Brooklyn, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and city public health officials.
All 50 states require children to be vaccinated for various diseases in order to attend public schools, unless they have medical reasons for exemption.
Only three states already bar all non-medical exemptions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: Mississippi, West Virginia and California.
While most states allow religious exemptions, Maine is one of 17 states that let parents also opt out based on personal or moral beliefs.
California outlawed non-medical exemptions in 2015 after a measles outbreak was traced to the Disneyland theme park. The state saw the proportion of kindergarten students who received all mandated vaccines rise to 95.1 percent last year, from 92.8 percent in 2015.
It also saw the number of claimed medical exemptions rise to 0.7 percent from 0.2 percent. Officials have blamed this in part on unscrupulous doctors issuing spurious exemptions, prompting lawmakers to consider new legislation that would give the state the final say over whether a medical exemption is valid.
Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio