Illinois officials are “looking at all options” as the number of unvaccinated children in the state increased last year.
According to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, the number of children who attended school in the 2018-2019 school year without their measles immunization increased by 2003. A nationwide study by ABC-owned stations found that Illinois’ religious exemptions accounted for nearly three-quarters of those.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike told ABC 7 that health officials were exploring whether state law should be changed to remove the religious exemption for vaccinations.
“We are considering all options to increase vaccination rates throughout the state, especially in areas where schools are reporting less than 95% vaccination rates,” Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.
Statewide, most schools have immunization rates of more than 95 percent, but only nine percent of the state’s private and public schools are at 100 percent. That means there are about 40,000 students enrolled in Illinois schools who have not been vaccinated, according to state data. A few schools have less than 50 percent of their students immunized.
“There are growing numbers of children who are not vaccinated because of a parent’s personal belief or religious belief,” said Diane Peterson, associate director for immunization projects with the Immunization Action Coalition. “But, a major religion whose practices or tenets would prohibit or discourage vaccination doesn’t exist.”
Tom Hughes, executive director of the Illinois Public Health Association, echoed Peterson. He said the exemption is being abused.
"People are using the religious exemption to cover their philosophical issues with vaccines," he said, adding that the state would likely have to change the law to remove the religious exemption.
Illinois could follow the lead of Mississippi, West Virginia, California, Maine and New York and remove the ability to exempt a child for religious reasons, leaving only medical issues as a reason for exemption.
Peterson said many parents who have personal objections to vaccinations have given a religious reason for exempting their children.
To maintain what the World Health Organization deems “herd immunity,” about 95 percent of a given population must be immunized.
Former Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation in 2015 that required families to explain why they were seeking an exemption from immunizations and also required a doctor to certify that they had spoken to the parent or guardian about the importance of vaccinations.
Legislation sponsored by state Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, would require parents to complete a Certificate of Religious Exemption and complete an online immunization seminar issued by the state.