NEW YORK • Confronted with both serious measles outbreaks and a growing anti-vaccine movement, New York lawmakers have voted to ban religious exemptions that would allow parents to circumvent school-mandated vaccination.
After heated debate, the majority of the legislature's two chambers voted on Thursday to pass the measure. With Governor Andrew Cuomo planning to sign the Bill, New York will join a few other states, including California, that have banned religious exemptions.
The authorities declared measles eliminated in the United States in 2000, but there have been 1,022 cases reported in the country this year, the worst since 1992.
Measles is a highly contagious and potentially life-threatening disease, with the success in 2000 attributed to decades-long campaigns to get people vaccinated.
There are several major measles hot spots in and around New York - particularly in areas with large Orthodox Jewish communities such as Brooklyn, which has reported 588 cases since October, and Rockland, which has reported 266 - that sprang up last autumn and threaten the nation's "elimination status".
In Rockland County, anti-vaccine groups have had some success at targeting with misinformation. Many of these activists claim that vaccines cause autism, a link disproved repeatedly by scientists and medical experts.
For weeks, public health experts have called on state legislators to outlaw religious exemptions for vaccines, worried by the growing number of "anti-vaxxer" parents, who have been accused of using religious exemptions as a pretext for not vaccinating their children.
"The fact is that we have a movement against vaccines and we have to confront it with correct information," said Democratic Senator Shelley Mayer.
State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Democrat, said in a statement: "We're putting science ahead of misinformation about vaccines and standing up for the rights of immunocompromised children and adults, pregnant women and infants who can't be vaccinated through no fault of their own."
The law gives unvaccinated students up to 30 days to show they have started their required immunisations.
Dozens of New York legislators voted against the Bill, arguing that banning religious exemptions risks violating the First Amendment, which protects religious freedom.
"One of the things that truly distinguishes and makes us great is the First Amendment. I think this is a step too far and too much an infringement on people's religious beliefs," said Republican Senator Andrew Lanza.
"Asking for an exemption does not mean you get it," he added, noting that the authorities could still have denied exemption requests they deemed unjustified.
New York City officials began requiring residents in heavily affected areas to be vaccinated starting in April, but the city still had 173 cases that month and 60 last month. Schools were allowed to turn away students who had not been inoculated, but this did not stop the outbreak from growing.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES