BOSTON — Lawmakers and medical groups are pushing for tighter vaccination rules amid concerns that the state is behind in protecting children against infectious diseases.

A proposal filed by Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, would eliminate religious exemptions that now allow unvaccinated students to attend public and private schools.

The bill would require the scheduled roster of childhood shots for all students. Medical exemptions, certified by a physician, would still be permitted.

Vargas cited a "rapid rise" in the use of religious exemptions in recent years despite an overall decline in personal religious affiliation.

"This indicates that many people are taking advantage of the religious vaccination law and not vaccinating their kids because of personal beliefs and misinformation, rather than religious concerns," he told the Legislature's Committee on Public Health on Monday.

Vargas said the latest data shows vaccination rates for measles, mumps and other childhood illnesses have dropped 20% during the pandemic.

"Unless children are caught up on their vaccines in the next several months, we will be more susceptible next year to outbreaks of measles and other vaccine preventable diseases," he said. "Eliminating the religious exemption will help us achieve the immunity level needed to prevent outbreaks."

To be sure, Vargas' plan wouldn't require the COVID-19 and influenza vaccinations, which currently are not mandated by the state for K-12 schools.

But his plan for other shots has support from the influential Massachusetts Medical Society, which in 2019 adopted a policy opposing vaccine exemptions for school-age children for non-medical reasons.

The bill also has more than a dozen co-sponsors, including Reps. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and Paul Tucker, D-Salem.

Another proposal, filed by Rep. Paul Donato, D-Medford, and Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, takes a less aggressive approach to boosting vaccination rates. It would require health officials to set guidelines for vaccine exemptions for children in public and private schools.

Both proposals face a backlash from conservative and faith groups, as well as parents who argue that stripping the exemptions would violate their religious liberties.

"The state is sworn to uphold the religious rights of its citizens," said Janet Hudson, one of dozens of parents who spoke in opposition to the bills Monday. "Denying education on the basis of religion is discriminatory and coercive at best."

Massachusetts, like most states, requires students to be vaccinated to attend school, though parents may opt out due to religious or medical reasons. Those rules apply to private schools, as well, though the criteria often vary.

Families objecting to vaccines for non-medical reasons must notify their child's school in writing each year.

While all states have laws requiring vaccinations for children enrolled in school or day care, only a handful do not consider exemptions for religious or other non-medical reasons. Those include California, Mississippi and West Virginia.

At least 10 other states began considering stricter laws on school-aged vaccines following a nationwide measles outbreak in 2019, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Medical experts including Dr. Linda Young, a pediatrician and member of the Massachusetts Academy of Pediatrics, says the state should be next in eliminating the religious “loophole.”

”There is no recognized religion that prevents people from receiving vaccinations," she said. "Vaccines are probably safest and most effective medical intervention in use today."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com

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