BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
In the wake of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s declaration of a measles outbreak for parts of New Jersey with 14 confirmed cases, health officials are reminding parents to get their children vaccinated.
Although the numbers have dropped slightly, some Montclair parents are still seeking immunization exemptions under a state law that allows parents to opt out of vaccinating their children due to religious beliefs.
State law requires students receive a list of vaccines for public school attendance, but since 2008 New Jersey parents wanting exemptions need only to send in a letter to their district stating they are against vaccinating their children due to beliefs. Parents can also receive exemptions citing a child’s medical issues, such as with a compromised immune system or other medical issues.
In Montclair this year, no students took medical exemptions, down from five during the 2017-18 school year.
The number of students receiving religious exemptions dropped slightly. For the 2018-19 school year, 177 students took religious exemptions, down three from the 180 in 2017-18.
In 2016-2017, 154 Montclair students in grades K-12 asserted religious exemptions from immunizations.
During the 2017-18 school year, 2.4 percent of New Jersey students took religious exemptions to not vaccinate, according to the state Department of Health (DOH).
“It is my understanding that the state considers Montclair highly compliant without a high number of exemptions, as we are under 3 percent with religious exemptions,” said Superintendent Kendra Johnson.
The number of New Jersey students with vaccination exemptions has risen by 64 percent since 2014, according to the DOH.
In Essex County over the last four years, religious exemptions for public-school students have risen by 46 percent, from 713 students in 2013-14 to 1,046 in 2017-18.
The vaccination rate for public school students in the county is 94.7, while it is 92.8 percent for non-public school students.
In order for a student to get an exemption, a written statement is submitted to the district by the student, or the student’s parent or guardian if the student is a minor, stating that “immunization interferes with the free exercise of the pupil’s religious rights.” The district must accept the exemption.
Medical exemptions, which require a doctor’s recommendation, are harder to get, and are typically limited to a particular vaccine and sometimes only for a brief period of time.
Medical exemptions have remained steady at 0.2 percent over the last four years in Essex County, according to the state.
In New Jersey over the last four years, the number of students with religious exemptions increased by 38 percent and legislators are taking note after the announcement that 14 residents reported contracting measles this year. A bill in the Assembly would only allow for medical exemptions and abolish exemptions based on religious beliefs.
In New Jersey required vaccinations include: DTaP (Diphtheria, Tetanus, acellular Pertussis), Polio Inactivated Polio Vaccine (IPV), MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella), Varicella (Chickenpox), Hepatitis B, Meningococcal, Tdap (Tetanus, diphtheria, acellular pertussis) and influenza.
“Vaccines are the most effective way to prevent community-spread illness,” said Dr. Everett Schlam of Hackensack Meridian Health Mountainside Medical Center, formerly a member of the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
Severe reactions are very uncommon, he tells his patients.
There were several hundred flu-related deaths a year before the influenza vaccine became available.
“The less people with vaccinations, the more we will see outbreaks,” Schlam said.
A bill introduced in the Assembly would exempt a child from the requirement to receive the influenza vaccine with a written statement by a doctor because the child is allergic to eggs or any other ingredient contained within the vaccine. In the case of a flu outbreak, the child would be excused from school.
A 1998 study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield falsely linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. It was retracted by its publisher and led to the stripping of Wakefield’s medical license, but not before it helped fuel an anti-vaccination movement.