Week of reckoning: US becomes latest to face backlash over vaccine restrictions

Federal courts have granted injunctions blocking two Biden administration mandatory vaccine rules, including an initiative to mandate some Ohio children be inoculated against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, known as pertussis.

The most recent court case could become significant as discussions over serious epidemics in school zones around the US unfold and parents express deep concerns over the medical and cost consequences of vaccines. The ruling is closely watched as a possible rallying point for parents and vaccine activists, and comes amid feverish discussions about whether backsliding on vaccines will be felt in pockets of Europe where there is a history of weakening immunization standards.

Biden administration former Health and Human Services secretary Tom Frieden said the ruling is a win for parents and governments that want to listen to them and administer the best public health measures.

“Vaccines save lives, and the American people made clear they want governments to treat vaccines as a way to protect public health and not take away important public health protections for their constituents,” Frieden said in a statement.

But some medical and vaccine organizations said the decisions to reverse the government regulations put public health at risk.

“Advocacy groups have long argued that parents have the right to make informed health decisions for their own children,” said Greg Palast, a journalist and fellow at the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, which focuses on public health activism. “This is a blow, because it means they are effectively able to postpone any vaccinations children would otherwise be vaccinated against until they are older and medically developed.”

The Ohio case presents a particularly vexing dilemma for officials around the country grappling with serious epidemics of whooping cough. The number of confirmed cases in the US this year has jumped to more than 6,000 and has surpassed the numbers seen in a typical year. In Ohio, there have been roughly 1,600 confirmed cases of whooping cough this year.

Under the rules reinstated in a Friday court order, whooping cough vaccine would not be required for children if their parents declared them unvaccinated or refused to get them.

In 2014, the Obama administration called on the states to require kindergarteners to receive the vaccine, which is inactivated and requires at least one dose in six months to be effective.

In January 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the public health departments of 16 states agreed to the rules, which were expected to go into effect in January 2016. The Ohio case became the first to become a challenge by a group that opposes government mandates, with claims that the rules were too vague.

A group representing parents said they were trying to stop the courts from overturning those regulations.

“It was my intention to sue the federal government so no other local or state government or school district had to do this again,” said Sarah Slaughter, founder of, You Can Opt Out Of Informed Consent, which has operated on the West Coast since 1995 and now has over 4,000 members nationwide. “We were shocked that a federal court would reverse the Obama administration.”

On Tuesday night, US district judge Michael Barrett in Ohio overturned the regulations, siding with a group of parents, attorneys and health advocates that brought the challenge and pointed to the whooping cough outbreak in Ohio. Barrett held that Ohio could not require school-age children to be vaccinated to attend the school.

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Barrett was appointed to the bench by George W Bush.

Friday’s decision is the latest in a series of recent efforts to stop the federal government from mandating vaccinations on the grounds that the policies are too vague or result in additional health risks, especially for pregnant women or young children. A number of states, including Mississippi and West Virginia, have enacted laws to limit the power of state and federal governments to enact mandatory vaccine rules.

In the Ohio case, Barrett said in his opinion that: “Despite the excellent epidemiological evidence, here and elsewhere, claims that vaccinations cause permanent damage have been repeatedly refuted.”

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