A measles outbreak in parts of the country is igniting the national debate over whether to vaccinate children. In Florida, children are legally required to be immunized against a series of diseases, including measles. Unlike in California and some other states, a Florida parent cannot exempt their child from getting a vaccine based on philosophical beliefs, such as if they think vaccines might be dangerous to their child.
In Florida there are still exemptions. One is if a child’s medical condition could be worsened by a vaccine. Parents can also exempt their child from immunizations by using a religious exemption. The parent just has to fill out a form and submit it to their local health department. The form requires the child’s name, date of birth and social security number. But nowhere does the form require proof of a particular religion or religious belief that prevents the child from being vaccinated.
Seminole County’s health director said the health department has to, in good faith, trust that a parent is being honest about the religious exemption. Legally, they can’t question the parent or demand proof.
“We honor that. We’re trusting that they really have a religious exemption as to the reason why they don’t want to take the vaccines,” said Dr. Swannie Jett, Seminole County Health Director.
Among school-age children in Seminole County, about 2 percent of children have been religiously exempted this school year from getting vaccines. That amounts to about 2,000 students across the county.
There have only been two confirmed cases of measles in Seminole County in the past five years. But statewide health data shows a steady increase each year in the number of religious exemptions. And that trend is something that worries Dr. Jett.
“If we were to have a lot of religious exemptions over time, then I would start to have a concern about any type of outbreak,” said Dr. Jett.
Schools know which students haven’t been vaccinated because of exemptions and if the measles outbreak reached Florida, they would be required to pull those students out of school until the outbreak was over.