State Representative Andy Vargas of Haverhill stood up for public health on Beacon Hill — and quickly learned why so few of his fellow lawmakers have been eager to do the same.
The nation is in the midst of a serious measles outbreak linked to parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. This year, more than 1,000 cases have been reported across 28 states, the highest number in 27 years. The outbreak hasn’t much affected Massachusetts yet — and Vargas wants to make sure it stays that way. So he filed a common-sense bill on Beacon Hill that would make it harder for parents to send their children to school without their measles shot and other standard vaccinations.
His thanks? A social-media outcry from anti-vaccine conspiracists, including an angry note to his wife on Instagram.
Yes, this is happening in Massachusetts — a state that enjoys one of the highest rates of immunization in the country and is widely considered a medical and higher-education mecca. But the state hasn’t been immune to the anti-vaccine sentiment that’s growing nationwide. Massachusetts has seen an increase in the number of people claiming dubious exemptions to reject vaccines for their children, a loophole the Vargas bill would close.
Right now, all children enrolling in school in Massachusetts must show proof of vaccination against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, measles, and polio. But there are two exceptions. The first, the medical exemption, makes plenty of sense: It exempts children with compromised immune systems, vaccine allergies, or other bona fide medical reasons.
The religious exemption, though, has proved ripe for abuse. No major world religious tradition objects to vaccinations, but the percentage of Massachusetts schoolchildren unvaccinated for ostensibly religious reasons has shot up six-fold since the mid-1980s. It’s likely that most parents claiming the religious exemption are really acting on their own personal beliefs, according to Vargas. Many parents still believe, contrary to evidence, that vaccines cause autism — and the anti-vaccine theories only get zanier from there. Not only are these parents neglecting their children’s well-being, they’re also jeopardizing the health of other kids who can’t be vaccinated for legitimate medical reasons and are exposed to greater risk when their classmates come to school unvaccinated.
The Vargas proposal would eliminate the religious exemption, leaving only the medical exemption in place. If it passes, Massachusetts would join the handful of states that have removed all nonmedical exemptions; Maine did so earlier this year , while New York became the latest last week.
The good news is that Vargas’s proposal has also garnered significant support. So much so, the Haverhill legislator said, that the people who have reached out with positive reactions outnumber the vaccine rejectionists. “This is about science, facts, and protecting public health,” Vargas said. The bill has bipartisan support and 34 other cosponsors — still far short of a majority, as if other lawmakers are still worried about antagonizing the small but noisy subculture of vaccine skeptics.
It shouldn’t require an act of bravery to file or support legislation that protects the most vulnerable. Vaccines are safe, period. And Massachusetts lawmakers shouldn’t wait for a measles epidemic to break out here to act on Vargas’s proposal.