Removing religious exemption is good policy
Vaccines have been compulsory to attend public schools in Connecticut since 1959. Two exemptions to this requirement exist. A medical exemption is allowed if vaccines would endanger a child’s health, and a religious exemption is allowed if vaccines violate the child’s religious convictions. The religious exemption is bad policy. It cannot be properly monitored or enforced, and as such, has had negative consequences. The Connecticut General Assembly should approve HB 5044 and end the religious exemption.
Vaccines are safe, and they promote both individual and public health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics unequivocally endorse the use of vaccines for children and adults with healthy immune systems. These organizations also state that vaccines are most effective when there is maximum participation. “Herd” or “community” immunity is achieved when everyone who can safely take vaccines does so. This means infants and the immuno-compromised who cannot take vaccines are protected from vaccine preventable diseases. Also, the vaccinated enjoy further protection because exposure rates are decreased. It’s a win for everyone.
The religious exemption has grown in popularity in the last few years. On Feb. 19, Department of Public Health Commissioner Coleman-Mitchell testified that the use of the religious exemption increased by 25% and that over 100 Connecticut schools fell below the threshold for community immunity.
Last year Connecticut experienced four cases of the measles, which signals the erosion of our state’s community immunity. In an era where measles was eradicated – meaning we should have ZERO cases of measles– it’s clear the time for policy correction is now.
The overuse of the religious exemption signals that it is being used as a loophole for parents who do not want to comply with Connecticut’s public schools vaccine mandate. I have listened to the parents wanting to keep the religious exemption and most of the arguments have centered not on religion but on preserving parental choice, doubts regarding the safety of vaccines, and a preference for other immunity fortifying efforts.
Parents get to make many choices, but in Connecticut this should not be one of them. Vaccines are required to attend public school – medical and religious reasons currently excepted. Schools have a responsibility to establish a safe environment for our children when they are there, and vaccines are an important part of disease prevention. There is no substitute for vaccines. Their efficacy relies on maximum participation among those who can safely take them, and that’s the overwhelming majority of us.
Ironically, the debate about the necessity of vaccines is only being had because vaccines have done their job. We have forgotten what it’s like to have children with measles, mumps, chickenpox, polio, and other vaccine-preventable diseases. We have forgotten that vaccine preventable diseases may be accompanied by secondary complications, like immune amnesia in the case of measles, or secondary infection or blindness in the case of chickenpox. Death, while rare, can also result from many diseases. Vaccines can and have prevented all of this. Our arrogance in denying the efficacy of vaccines is wrongheaded and dangerous.
We should not wait until there is a public health emergency to react. Government has a responsibility to be proactive – especially when the consequences of inaction are long-lasting, dire, and expensive. The public health crisis in Rockland County, New York – our neighbor – is instructive about what we might face in Connecticut. Just look at the current and unchecked spread of COVID-19 (or Coronavirus). Moreover, in the event of a public health emergency, the costs of containment would be borne by local governments. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
If vaccine rates are an indicator of public support, then the majority of Connecticut parents understand the value of vaccines. However, anti-vaccine parents have dominated the public debate. Pro-vaccine parents — a silent majority — should understand that their children are better protected when the children around them are likewise vaccinated. We should all be concerned about the health of the immuno-compromised. The state has an obligation to promote public health, and the overuse and abuse of the religious exemption presents a clear threat to the health and safety of our schools and communities. I urge the Connecticut General Assembly to pass HB 5044 and remove the religious exemption.
Kerri Raissian of Avon is an associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut and the Co-Leader of the Connecticut Scholars Strategy Network.
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