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FALQs: Vaccination Law in the United States

This post is coauthored by Robert Brammer and Barbara Bavis, senior legal reference specialists.

This material is provided for informational purposes only and is not to be considered legal advice. To obtain legal advice, please consult a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

United States vaccination requirements have been in the news, particularly following what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has described as “a large, ongoing multi-state outbreak linked to an amusement park in California.” As such, many questions have arisen as to the laws regarding vaccination and immunization in the United States.  The answers to these questions are not as simple as one might think.

1. Where can I find U.S. federal laws regarding vaccination requirements?

Much history of the federal government’s involvement in vaccination efforts is recounted in an article titled “Vaccine-Preventable Diseases, Immunizations, and MMWR — 1961–2011” by Alan R. Hinman, Walter A. Orenstein, and Anne Schuchat (October 7, 2011).   In fact, according to a search of the House Office of Law Revision Counsel‘s United States Code website, few (only about 35) federal statutes explicitly mention vaccinations. Those statutes that do typically also touch on a variety of other subjects, including: immigration, the facilitation of scientific research, safety, record keeping and reporting requirements, funding, agriculture, foreign relations and assistance, product liability, and insurance coverage, among others. In your research, be sure to also look for agency regulations that implement federal statutes in the Code of Federal Regulations. To find the regulation that implements a particular statute, you can use the Code of Federal Regulations’ parallel table of rules and authorities.

For more information about how to perform research regarding federal statutes and regulations, please see some of our previous research guides, like “How to Trace Federal Regulations–A Research Guide,” “How to Trace Federal Legislation–A Research Guide,” and “Federal Statutes: A Beginner’s Guide.”

Is your child vaccinated Vaccination prevents smallpox - Chicago Department of Health. (Published between 1936 and 1941). Poster for Chicago Department of Health. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3f05173

Is your child vaccinated? Vaccination prevents smallpox – Chicago Department of Health. (Published between 1936 and 1941). Poster for Chicago Department of Health. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3f05173

2. Where can I find state or local laws regarding vaccination requirements?

Outside the realm of immigration, much of the legal activity that impacts the direct administration of vaccinations to individuals occurs at the state and local levels. Though there is case law that found it within the police power[1] to require persons to submit (within limits[2]) to a vaccination and subject those who refuse it to a penalty, laws often obtain compliance by conditioning the receipt of a public benefit, such as admission to an educational institution.[3]

State and local vaccination laws generally fall into several categories:  (1) vaccinations related to the provision of social services; (2) vaccinations for aged persons and dependent children; (3) record keeping requirements; (4) vaccinations required for admission to educational institutions; and (5) vaccinations required for healthcare workers and patients, vaccinations related to agriculture, and vaccinations related to domestic animals.

State statutes can be found in each state’s code or statute compilation, which organizes state statutes by subject. If you have access to an index for your state code, you might look under the subjects “vaccination,” “immunization,” and/or “diseases.” The exact organization of each state’s code differs by state, but laws governing vaccinations are typically found under the titles that correspond to the subjects “public health,” “heath and safety,” “social welfare,” “agriculture,”  “welfare,” “business and professions,” “animals,” and “education.”

Also, the CDC and National Conference of State Legislatures have both compiled information on the laws in particular states. We suggest reviewing these state codes yourself, either by visiting your local library, or by using our Guide to Law Online page to find the statutes online. Similar to the approach to federal research, be sure to also check your state administrative code to find regulations issued by state agencies that are charged with implementing particular statutes.

As for questions about local law, municipal codes consist of ordinances passed by local governments that, like state codes, are organized by subject. The relevant subjects are similar to those mentioned in the discussion of state statutes. You can locate many municipal codes online or at your local public law library.  For more information about how to perform research regarding municipal codes or ordinances, visit our previously-published guide on the topic, “Municipal Codes: A Beginner’s Guide.”

We hope this FALQ has been helpful. If there is another topic you would like to see discussed as a frequently asked legal question, please leave a comment or contact us through our Ask a Librarian page.

See, e.g., Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905); Zucht v. King, 260 U.S. 174 (1922).

[2] State v. Hay, 126 N.C. 999, 35 S.E. 459 (1900).

[3] McGilvra v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, 113 Wash. 619, 194 P. 817 (1921).

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