Penn State University is getting fed up with outbreaks of wholly preventable diseases that are often fueled by anti-vaxxers—and it's doing something new about it.
Yesterday, the university announced the implementation of a policy change that will freeze out students who aren't meeting its vaccination requirements. Graduate and undergraduate students who haven't provided proof they've been vaccinated for measles, mumps, and rubella will be unable to register for next spring's classes. Students who live in university housing will also be required to show they've been vaccinated for bacterial meningitis. Penn State told students that they have to complete and upload verification forms on the University Health Services site.
Students will, however, be able to obtain a waiver exempting them from these requirements. And those who attend classes online or are taking graduate, non-degree programs at Penn State's Great Lake campus will also be exempted.
The holds are expected to affect some 5,000 students, out of 40,000 currently on campus, Penn State spokesperson Mindy Krause tells Tonic. That tally, though, not only includes students who are unvaccinated, but those who simply haven't turned in their immunization form yet.
Penn State's policy change, first communicated to students in February, is part of the university's ongoing effort to ensure that 100 percent of its students are vaccinated, Krause says. But the new registration penalty is especially timely. Earlier this spring, the school dealt with an outbreak of mumps that affected more than 80 students. And the year before, a 19-year-old Penn State student was hospitalized with meningitis.
Many, if not most, public and private universities have similar vaccination requirements for their students, but relatively few go as far as to withhold registration for failing to comply with them. The California State University system mandates that its public universities place enrollment holds on students under the age of 26 who haven't gotten their immunizations or approved waivers. And in Texas, a 2014 law required incoming students under the age of 22 to get vaccinated for meningitis, which prompted colleges like the University of Houston to implement their own freezing out policy. George Washington University will let new students register for their first semester without vaccination records on file, but will place a hold on their account after that.
Diane Peterson, associate director for immunization projects at the non-profit Immunization Action Coalition, tells Tonic that more universities and high schools do seem to be pushing for policies like Penn State's to enforce mandatory vaccine laws, though she doesn't know of any data to back that up. "I certainly see it more in the media," she says.
Aggressive as Penn State's policy change may be though, the state's exemption standards still leave something to be desired. In Pennsylvania, students can obtain a waiver from the MMR vaccine for medical, religious, and philosophical reasons. And while they need the approval of their personal doctor or religious authority to secure the former two kinds of waivers, all that's needed for a philosophical exemption is a "detailed written statement of personal beliefs." Though that statement can be denied. Vaccination experts have long bemoaned both religious and philosophical waivers as an easy way for anti-vaxxers to skirt the law. Only three states bar the use of non-medical waivers: California, Mississippi, and West Virginia.
But even when these exemptions are granted, Krause tells Tonic, they can still help prevent outbreaks from getting larger. In the case of an outbreak, she said, the waivers can help identify who to remove from campus that much quicker, since non-vaccinated people are the most at risk of catching and spreading these diseases. Penn State's waiver plainly says: "For the safety of our campus community, the student will be subject to removal from the University, if the University and/or state public authority advises removal due to a communicable disease outbreak."
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