State should end religious vaccine exemption: here's why

The Connecticut General Assembly should follow the lead of Gov. Ned Lamont and his commissioner of the Department of Public Health and eliminate the religious exemption to the law mandating that children must be vaccinated before attending public schools.

On Monday, Lamont announced his support for only maintaining a medical exception to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination requirement, typically called the MMR vaccine. He did so on the same day Commissioner Renee D. Coleman-Mitchell wrote to Senate and House leaders outlining the reasons she has concluded ending the religious exemption is in the interest of public health.

Only two religious groups ― Christian Scientists and the Dutch Reformed Church ― have demonstrated a pattern of widely rejecting vaccinations, yet even their objections are not explicitly laid out in church doctrine. Acting on false pseudo-science claims that vaccinations are linked to autism or other health issues, an increasing number of parents are utilizing the religious exemption to keep their children from being vaccinated.

This phenomenon is endangering other children. Public health experts recommend a target of a 95% vaccination rate to obtain “herd immunity.” At that rate outbreaks are unlikely, protecting the students who for medical reasons cannot be immunized. Some of those children are medically fragile, wrote Coleman-Mitchell, meaning if exposed to measles or other preventable disease their lives could be in danger.

“They depend on herd immunity for their health and their lives,” wrote the commissioner.

A 2017-2018 survey found 102 schools in Connecticut had kindergarten MMR immunization rates below the 95% federal guideline. On Oct. 21, the department is planning to release immunization rates by school. The trends are concerning.

Religious exemptions to vaccinations increased by 25% from the 2017-2018 to the 2018-2019 school years, with 2.5% of parents claiming the exemption for their children. That change represented the largest single-year increase in religious exemptions since the health department started tracking the data a decade ago. Last school year, the state’s overall student immunization rate was 95.9%, down 0.6% from just a year earlier.

“Connecticut has many under-immunized schools and the risk of a measles outbreak is real and increasing,” Coleman-Mitchell warned in her letter to the legislature.

This is not some imagined possibility. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1,241 people in 31 states contracted measles between Jan. 1 and Sept. 5 of this year, with 130 people hospitalized. While Connecticut has had three cases, in nearby Brooklyn and Rockland County, N.Y., there have been more than 1,000 cases.

As the public health commissioner noted, “Controlling a measles outbreak is difficult and quick success is not assured.”

In the decade before 1963, when the measles vaccine became available, 3 million to 4 million people were infected annually, an average of 48,000 were hospitalized and several hundred died. That is not an age society needs to return to because of misguided and unfounded concerns.

Maine, Washington and New York have rolled back similar religious and philosophical exemptions.

Parents would not be forced to have their children vaccinated if the exemption is lifted, but they would have to find alternatives to a public-school education — home or private schooling. The commissioner recommends the legislature make the new policy effective for the 2021-2022 school year, giving school districts and families time to prepare.

The legislature should consider other changes in the interest of public health. It should statutorily require the annual publication of vaccination rates, replacing arcane language that references limiting health data information “to the minimal amount necessary to accomplish the public health purpose.”

And lawmakers better be prepared to tighten up what constitutes a legitimate medical exemption. States that have ended the religious exemption have seen a spike in medical exemption requests.

“In California, for example, many of the medical exemptions sought following the repeal of personal belief exemptions in 2015 were highly suspect,” states Commissioner Coleman-Mitchell.

The Connecticut General Assembly passed the religious exemption in 1959. It is being abused. Legislators then could not have envisioned the baseless vaccine hesitancy that has arisen today. Repeal the law.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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