Hundreds urge lawmakers to keep religious vaccine exemption

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Hundreds of parents who are skeptical about the safety of vaccines turned out in force Wednesday, hoping to squash the latest proposal to end Connecticut’s religious exemption from certain childhood vaccines.

But members of the medical and science community urged members of the General Assembly not to be swayed by the large numbers of advocates who turned out with young children in tow and stickers that read, “In God we trust.” By late morning, crowds packed the Legislative Office Building and roughly 500 people had signed up to testify before the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee, which has proposed a bill ending the long-standing exemption.

“You’re hearing from a very vocal minority,” warned Dr. Linda Niccolai, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health and Yale University, urging lawmakers to “listen to the experts, people who are professionally trained and have science on their side.”

New data released in October by Connecticut health officials shows immunization rates for measles, mumps and rubella among kindergarten students has continued to decline in more schools, a development that has been linked to more families seeking religious exemptions from required vaccinations.

Under the bill, people would need to be immunized or placed on a modified immunization schedule prior to the first day of the 2020-21 school year.

During the 2018-19 school year, the vaccination rate fell below the federally mandated guideline of 95% in 134 schools with more than 30 kindergarten students, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Public Health. That’s compared to 102 such schools during the 2017-2018 school year. The statewide rate still meets the 95% guideline.

“We can no longer afford to put our children at risk,” said Renee D. Coleman-Mitchell, the state’s Department of Public Health commissioner, who urge lawmakers not to wait to scrap the religious exemption until the vaccination rates decline further.

Coleman-Mitchell pointed to how Connecticut had four cases of measles in 2019. She has said the best protection against the highly contagious disease is vaccination. Critics argued that is not a real public health emergency.

Rosanne Bisi, a mother from Wethersfield, said she’d like to see lawmakers come up with a philosophical exemption from vaccines, like in more than a dozen other states. But minus that step, she said it’s wrong for lawmakers to scrap the existing religious exemption.

“Honestly, when it comes to religious exemptions, when it comes to religion in the United States, I don’t feel it’s the government’s right to take away something that already exists for people who practice religious and use an exemption for religious purposes,” she said.

Coleman-Mitchell spoke in favor of this year’s immunization bill, which would retain the existing medical exemption if it’s deemed necessary by a doctor, but not the religious exemption, from required immunizations, such as measles, mumps and rubella and any additional ones deemed necessary by a doctor.

The bill would also allow the Department of Public Health to release annual immunization rates for each public and nonpublic school. The agency would also create a uniform certificate for medical exemptions and establish an advisory committee to provide guidance on exemptions from immunization requirements.

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