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Across NC, More Parents Are Using Religious Exemption To Avoid Vaccinating Children

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a campaign to educate parents about vaccinations.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Fresh-faced Kindergartners entering school this year will almost certainly be surrounded by a higher percentage of peers whose parents have actively avoided obtaining their vaccinations.

Across the state, numbers of unvaccinated children have been creeping up. While numbers for the 2019-20 school year won't be available for months, looking at data for the past eight years suggests the trend is not likely to reverse.

North Carolina requires students be vaccinated to attend any kind of school, including charter or private schools. But parents may obtain one of two kinds of exemptions. The first is a medical exemption, which requires a licensed physician to attest that the child is unable to obtain a vaccination, perhaps because of an allergy. The law also allows an exemption for "bona fide religious beliefs."

The use of a religious exemption to avoid vaccinating children has been on the rise.
Credit N.C. Department of Health and Human Services / Jason deBruyn
Jason deBruyn
The use of a religious exemption to avoid vaccinating children has been on the rise.

While those claiming a medical exemption has held steady – only about 1 in 1,000 students claim it – those claiming a religious exemption has been on the rise. Last year, about 1.5 percent, or 1 out of 300 students, claimed the exemption.

Furthermore, There were 60 counties that had a year-over-year increase in the percentage of parents claiming a religious exemption, and 80 counties had higher rates of religious exemption last year than in the 2011-12 school year.

As exemption rates have increased, health experts have tried to spread education.

"They consider vaccines to be one of the greatest public health achievements not just of our lifetime, but in general to reduce morbidity, mortality, illness, injury, and death," said JoAnn Douglas, supervisor of the Wake County Health and Human Services Immunization team. "We always encourage parents to consult reliable sources, like the CDC, the advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, well known websites."

Data for the 2017-18 school year are the most recent available. Data are reported by N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and track the vaccination percentages of children entering Kindergarten. New school year data are typically available in the late winter.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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