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Vaccine Exemptions: Do They Really Put Others at Risk?

by Alan Phillips, J.D. Attorney and Counselor at Law

Parents who exercise a vaccine exemption for their children are often ridiculed for putting their own children and others at risk. However, legally and medically, unvaccinated children do not pose a significant health risk to themselves or anyone else. Alternative vaccine views support this assertion, but the reasoning in this article comes straight from mainstream vaccine beliefs, accepted medical practice and current law.

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First, from the legal perspective, forty-eight state legislatures, federal agencies (e.g., Department of Defense, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services), and all U.S. territories offer religious exemptions to immunizations. The state legislatures and federal agencies providing these exemptions are presumed to have considered whether or not the exercise of these exemptions would pose a significant health risk. They would not have enacted these exemption laws if their exercise would pose a significant health risk. Thus, there is a legal presumption that the exercise of a vaccine exemption does not pose a significant risk to anyone.

     This legal presumption is not a mere exercise in semantics or logic. It is based on the widely accepted herd immunity theory, which tells us that so long as most of the members of a population are immune, all members of the population are protected.[2] Indeed, current vaccine policy necessarily depends on this theory. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says: “No vaccine is 100% effective. Most routine childhood vaccines are effective for 85% to 95% of recipients. For reasons related to the individual, some will not develop immunity.”[3] (It’s curious that they blame the “individual” and not the vaccines. Regardless, the CDC admits that this is why the majority of outbreaks occur in vaccinated children.) In contrast, national exemption rates run about 1% – 2.5% on average.[4] Furthermore, just as vaccinated children are not necessarily immune, exempt children aren’t necessarily lacking immunity. Many exempt children develop natural immunity, and according to the CDC, they don’t have to get sick for that to happen.[5] The bottom line is, you can’t determine the immunity status of any given individual child by the child’s vaccination status alone. But with the herd immunity theory, we don’t need to; we need only be concerned with a populations’ immune status collectively.

     Not only do non-immune children (vaccinated or not) not pose a significant health risk now, they pose no potential future risk, as protective laws and procedures have been put into place to account for them. For example, most states require exempt children to stay home from school during a local outbreak, for the duration of the incubation period of the outbreak disease. (Of course, since most non-immune children are vaccinated and they are not required to stay home, this practice discriminates against exempt children, but it is common policy around the U.S.) Most states also have laws that can require emergency vaccines and throw exemptions out the window and/or quarantine of unvaccinated persons in a declared, infectious disease emergency. So, neither exempt children nor their non-immune, vaccinated peers pose a significant health risk—now, or at any time in the future.

     A related issue concerns school administrators who fear that they risk liability if they allow exemptions, particularly in private schools. The short answer is that parents do not place themselves or anyone else at risk of liability for exercising a lawful exemption. By definition, liability occurs only when a law is breached. If all concerned are complying with the law, there won’t be a liability risk. Again, there is a legal presumption; here, that the proper exercise of a legal exemption does not create a significant liability risk—or else the exemption law would not have been enacted in the first place.

      Myths about vaccines and infectious disease persist, despite voluminous information refuting them, probably because fear is more powerful than reason. As the above reveals, this is true even within the world of vaccine mainstream beliefs. One of the more common mistakes comes from trying to apply concepts to individuals that really only apply to groups—that is the flawed basis for discriminating against exempt children and their parents. Those uncomfortable with this article have recourse with the state legislatures and promulgating regulatory agencies; that is, they can pursue changes in the law. Absent that, legally and medically, the exercise of a lawful vaccine exemption is, necessarily, a reasonably safe option that poses no significant health risk to anyone.

Alan Phillips, J.D. is a nationally recognized legal expert on vaccine rights issues. He helps clients, activists and other attorneys nationally with vaccine rights issues and legislative initiatives. Learn more at

[1] This article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute medical or legal advice.

[2]  For the purposes of this article, I am putting aside the fact that the herd immunity has been disproven many times over in the medical literature, and the fact that antibody production, the measure of vaccine immunity, is not a reliable indicator of actual immunity, according to the medical literature. For cites, see Dispelling Vaccination Myths,

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vaccines and Immunizations, Misconception #2. The majority of people who get disease have been vaccinated,

[4] Non-medical Exemptions to School Immunization Requirements, The Journal of the American Medical Association,

[5] See, e.g., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vaccines and Immunizations, Glossary, “Asymptomatic infection: The presence of an infection without symptoms. Also known as inapparent or subclinical infection,”

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