It was déjà vu all over again at a tense hearing on childhood vaccines held last week by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health.
The committee is considering a bill that would eliminate the section of the state’s compulsory vaccination law for school children that allows parents to cite “religious” reasons to opt out of otherwise required shots for their kids. Just like a couple of years ago, when the legislation was last filed without success, this week’s virtual hearing drew hundreds of parents and lawyers who testified against the measure for hours.
Yet there is one glaring difference this time: the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the far greater public understanding now of the way people who refuse vaccinations can heighten the risk for everyone else. The shots covered by the law are for different diseases, but the principle is the same: People who don’t get shots for themselves or their children are putting the community in danger. “It would be a shame after that learned lesson that we’d have another outbreak of a disease that is preventable,” said state Representative Andy Vargas, who filed the bill to tighten the vaccination requirements for school-age children.
Supporters of keeping the religious exemption argue that vaccination uptake isn’t a problem in Massachusetts. State law allows parents to claim a medical or a religious exemption to the routine immunizations required to enroll children in school, such as the diphtheria, measles or polio vaccines. Roughly 1 percent of the student population has an exemption, which places the state as a whole well above herd immunity territory. Four in 5 students who claimed exemptions did it for religious reasons.
The statewide number is deceiving, though. Opponents of Vargas’s legislation rarely “talk about classroom or individual school-level data,” he said. “We have dozens of schools that have fallen below herd immunity. That’s the data that matters.” Indeed, it bears stating the obvious: Disease outbreaks begin locally. It would only take a single measles case at a school with a low immunization rate to endanger an entire community.
The rate of religious exemptions has been on the rise in the state: It is now five times the rate of the 1980s, Vargas said. No major religion has changed its teachings on vaccines during that time, and none ban immunization. The increase suggests that most people citing “religious” grounds to reject immunizations are doing so out of a personal belief. Some parents who testified at the hearing even said so themselves, citing beliefs in limiting medical intervention.
Vargas said that some who testified in the hearing against vaccines even questioned the concept of herd immunity, calling it just a theory that has never been proved. Well, the anti-vaccine movement can’t have it both ways. The idea behind herd immunity is that vaccinated people protect those in their proximity from infection. How can anti-vaxxers argue that there isn’t a vaccination problem in the state (see the 1 percent number above) and claim, at the same time, that herd immunity isn’t real?
Connecticut removed its religious exemption in April; Maine voters upheld the repeal of that state’s exemption in a referendum last year right before the pandemic. New York got rid of it in 2019, after a significant measles outbreak that infected nearly 650 people and cost taxpayers more than $8 million.
It’s never been more evident that vaccines save lives. Crucially, the pandemic last year caused many families to fall behind in their kids’ traditional vaccination schedule, increasing the risk of outbreaks at the start of the school year. Massachusetts lawmakers must do everything they can to increase uptake of routine immunizations among school-aged children, and that includes eliminating the religious exemption once and for all.
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