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New York’s measles vaccine rules get green light

Families unable to secure a medical exemption for their unvaccinated children failed to show that their rights were violated.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Ruling that New York has a public interest in requiring schoolchildren to get the measles vaccine, the Second Circuit rejected a challenge Friday to the state’s medical exemption requirements.

“Plaintiffs' children here were denied medical exemptions not because of their disabilities, but because they admittedly failed to comply with the new procedures, which, as we have concluded, are reasonably related to furthering a legitimate state objective,” U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin wrote for a three-judge panel.

Lawmakers here rewrote the rules for what qualifies as a medical exemption, while also removing religious exemptions entirely, in 2019 after an outbreak of the disease put the entire country at risk of losing its long-held measles elimination status.

For decades, the state has required students to get a slew of vaccines, including one for measles, to attend private and public schools. Under the new rules, however, a child who is unvaccinated must have a physician certify that the vaccine would cause serious injury or death if administered. The challenge here was brought by several parents with “medically fragile” children who provided such testimonials, only to have schools reject them.

A federal judge dismissed their case last year. The appeals court held oral arguments in November and affirmed that ruling Friday.

Chin said the schools were within their authority to reject the sought-after exemptions.

“The Supreme Court has held that states may grant school district officials ‘broad discretion’ to apply and enforce health law, including mandatory immunization laws,” said Chin. “The new regulations do not undermine this long-standing discretion or any right to a medical exemption.”

As for the families’ claim they had a fundamental right to not vaccinate their child, Chin called this assertion “overstated.”

“The State is not forcing any child to be vaccinated against her parents' will,” the 37-page ruling states. “Rather, the new regulations continue to permit a medical exemption, and they clarify when an exemption is appropriate and specify how parents may seek an exemption.” (Emphasis in original.)

The Obama-appointed Chin also disagreed with the families on their claim that the regulations were targeting their disabled children by not allowing them to go to school without the vaccine.

“First, the new regulations apply to all students, and not just to students with disabilities,” Chin said. “Children who cannot be safely vaccinated because of their disability will receive a medical exemption and may attend school, so long as they can demonstrate a medical need, based on a national evidence-based standard, for an exemption.”

Chin credited New York’s reasonable interest in creating the regulations, as the measles outbreak was fueled by low vaccination rates. With the removal of the religious exemption, officials feared many would seek an unwarranted medical exemption.

Sujata Gibson, an attorney for the families, expressed disappointment in the decision, adding that her clients are likely to appeal.

“Medical exemptions should be decided by treating physicians, not by unqualified bureaucrats who have never met or treated the at-risk patient,” Gibson said in an email. “Medicine is not ‘one size fits all.’”

Beezley Kiernan, representing the state, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Chin was joined in the ruling by U.S. Circuit Judges Jose Cabranes and Pierre Leval, Clinton appointees.

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