By ERIN ROLL
New Jersey is getting close to revising its law on student vaccine exemptions for religious reasons, but the debate is not without controversy.
The measure passed the state Assembly on Monday, Dec. 16, but a planned vote in the state Senate later in the day was put on hold due to protests from opponents. The original bill was introduced by Senators Loretta Weinberg and Joseph Vitale in March 2018.
Under current state law, required vaccines for children entering school include Tdap or DTaP, measles, mumps and rubella, varicella, polio, pneumococcal and meningococcal, depending on the child’s age and whether they are enrolled in daycare, preschool or pre-kindergarten. .For the 2018-2019 school year, there were no students in Montclair who applied for medical exemptions to vaccines, but there were 177 students who applied for religious exemptions, according to information provided by the district.
In Montclair, the district typically sees a very small number of medical exemptions to vaccines, approximately five students a year on average. There are a larger number for religious objections, including 154 in 2016-2017 and 180 in 2017-2018.
“It is my understanding that the state considers Montclair highly compliant without a high number of exemptions, as we are under three percent with religious exemptions,” then-Superintendent Kendra Johnson told Montclair Local in May.
The measure has drawn criticism from some parents who claim it would infringe on their religious rights or other rights.
As of Dec. 5, 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recorded 1,279 cases of measles in the United States for 2019, up from 378 in 2018. As a result, 2019 saw the highest number of measles cases since 1992, with cases being prevalent in communities with a large number of people not vaccinated. The highest number of cases for 2019 were reported in March and April, with 303 and 342 cases in those months, respectively.
The more people who are vaccinated, the better it is from a personal health and public health perspective, says Dr. Everett Schlam, assistant director of Mountainside Hospital’s family medicine residency program.
Schlam said he and his colleagues do hear a number of concerns from patients on the subject of vaccine safety. “I think the best perspective is to understand their concerns and validate their concerns,” he said, and to provide patients with information on the benefits and safety of vaccines.
Schlam concurred that 2019 has been a significant year for the number of cases of mumps, and influenza. “I think we’ve seen, when we let this eat away, we see the consequences,” he said.
A medical exemption to a vaccine requires documentation from a doctor or other health professional, verifying that the child has a health condition that would preclude them from getting a specific vaccine or vaccines. For a religious exemption, a parent must provide a written statement explaining how the vaccine would conflict with the person’s Bona fide religious beliefs, and demonstrate that those are the beliefs of an established religion. School administrators can not deny the exemption.
Vaccines are a pharmaceutical product with a certain amount of risk that affects people differently, said Barbara Loe Fisher, founder of the National Vaccine Information Center.The organization is dedicated to promoting informed consent for vaccines, objections to mandatory vaccines, and for protecting families’ rights to apply for exemptions from vaccines.
The right to informed consent and to refuse must be protected, she said.
In recent years, many families have tried to exempt their children from receiving vaccinations due to fears of autism or adverse medical events, though medical professionals have found no link between vaccines and autism. The anti-vaccine movement originated largely in 1998 when a British doctor published an article in the Lancet medical journal, falsely linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to causing autism. The article was subsequently retracted and the doctor’s license to practice medicine was revoked.
There will be two more opportunities to vote on the bill before Jan. 13. If the bill does not get a yes vote by that time, the legislative process will have to begin again.
In 2017, the Department of Health and Senior Services published a memo on vaccine exemptions to schools, child care centers and health departments, in response to a large number of requests for religious, philosophical or other non-medical exemptions.
“Schools, child care centers and local health departments who are responsible for processing requests for exemptions from mandatory immunization requirements are reminded that such exemptions are limited to medical and religious reasons. Requests for exemptions based on philosophical, moral, secular, or more general reasons are unacceptable and should not be granted,” the memo stated.
Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that religious exemptions would be eliminated if the legislation passes, while philosophical exemptions are already prohibited.