Connecticut’s Public Health Committee recently heard public testimony regarding HB6423 and SB568 — bills that would remove the religious exemption (the medical exemption would rightfully remain in place) from vaccination in order to attend school. The religious exemption allows parents to effectively opt their children out of vaccines. In doing so, these families can still send their children to Connecticut’s schools, daycares, colleges, and camps. This places other children at risk of contracting vaccine-preventable illnesses, and it is imperative the Connecticut legislature remove this exception.
We both listened to the testimony, and one of us was fortunate to be able to provide testimony. The overwhelming amount of testimony was from a very vocal minority supporting religious exemption (as the poll above shows, most Connecticut citizens support repealing the religious exemption ). Much of the testimony was riddled with factual inaccuracies. We address three fallacies that were repeated throughout the testimony.
Fallacy 1: If pro-vaccine people take their vaccines, then there is no public health threat from those that chose not to take vaccines.
This is wrong. Vaccines are powerful, but they are not all-powerful (for example, two doses of the measles vaccine is about 97% effective at preventing measles). Vaccines work best when the full community is inoculated. Vaccines reduce viral levels in our environment by reducing the number of human hosts, and this coupled with the personal armor afforded by vaccines is what leads to the eradication of illnesses like polio and measles.
The religious exemption’s increasing popularity is eroding Connecticut’s community immunity. Connecticut’s kindergarteners having increasingly opted into the religious exemption since 2012, with a small decline last year. There is also dangerous local variation. Connecticut has pockets of low vaccination compliance. The school level data shows several schools well below recommended vaccination rates, and further, the religious exemption – rather than the medical exemption – explains the low vaccination rates.
Fallacy 2: Integrating natural cures (e.g., sleep, diet, meditation, and other immune boosting strategies) could rival or even exceed the protective benefits of vaccines.
These health measures are critical in promoting wellness, but they will not prevent measles, mumps, chickenpox, polio, and other deadly vaccine-preventable illnesses.
Vaccines are the best and most proven way to prevent diseases; they protect those that are vaccinated, and by extension, those with legitimate medical barriers to vaccinations.
Ironically, the non-vaccinated are benefiting from the community immunity created by everyone else’s vaccination status, but now, their non-compliance is threatening this very safety net. There are people who desperately rely on this community immunity, and so the rest of us have a moral obligation to take our vaccines. This is a societal responsibility that should not be shirked or taken lightly.
Fallacy 3: Vaccines lead to widespread vaccine injury.
Vaccines are overwhelmingly safe. The CDC declares that vaccines are one of the largest medical advancements of our lifetimes, and their success has meant that many of us will never see the devastating consequences of many infectious diseases. However, vaccines are not 100% safe for every person, and sometimes there are risks. To monitor risk, we have the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). Throughout the hearing an old report from 2010, which found that about 1% of vaccine adverse events were reported to VAERS, was cited repeatedly as evidence of high vaccine injury.
This is an example of a poor and irresponsible use of science. First, an adverse event is not vaccine injury. An adverse event could be a headache or a sore arm which is preferable to any vaccine-preventable disease. VAERS was created as an early warning system to detect potential safety issues, but it is also a collection of unverified reports of adverse events and has been misused. We emphasize that all of the vaccinations required in HB6423 and SB568 are well-established, effective, and resoundingly safe. For those children that have a medical contraindication, the medical exemption will appropriately remain an option.
The truth: Vaccines are safe and lifesaving. This legislation does not require anyone to take vaccinations. It does require that children wanting to attend school, daycare, camp, and college with others need to be vaccinated. Choosing to forgo this medical intervention has personal implications, but that is preferred to a public health threat. One person or family’s choice cannot lead to a grave community consequence. The Connecticut legislature needs to intervene before another innocent child falls ill to a vaccine-preventable disease.
Kerri M. Raissian, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut and the Co-Leader of the Connecticut Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network. Dr. Jody Terranova is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and President-Elect of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.