WASHINGTON — A measles outbreak in five states has turned the spotlight on a longstanding federal law that exempts people from vaccines for religious reasons but has little to no enforcement to ensure it’s followed.
The law is known as the Quarantine Act, and includes exemptions for religious and medical reasons. But critics say it’s too loose — and vulnerable to abuse.
For decades, this system has allowed members of religious or medical groups to decide for themselves whether or not to get immunized for measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, a common childhood vaccine that protects against these strains of the disease.
Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota infectious disease expert, recently told the Minnesota Daily he called for a specific court order to get unvaccinated children removed from campus events at a medical college there. A group there hosts a “Meet and Greet” program to get vaccinated students inoculated against diseases.
A federal court of appeals in Minnesota sided with Osterholm in June, ordering the school to remove from the event unvaccinated students who refused to get vaccinated.
Since then, five such groups have ended up in a Minnesota district court, seeking clarification of the ramifications of the ruling. The groups have argued that the ruling is ambiguous and threatens to send a big message. The court and lower court have both sided with the university, explaining the groups have no basis to challenge the order.
Although similar rulings are rare, some worry that might not be true.
“I don’t think this is an unusual, unique case,” said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota infectious disease expert. “My question is, why is this so hard?”