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Vaccine opponents rally outside the Legislative Office Building (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT – More than 500 people signed up Wednesday to tell the Public Health Committee what they thought about legislation to repeal the religious exemption for childhood vaccines.

The Legislative Office Building was packed with parents and children who came prepared for what is expected to be a long day and night of testimony. The hearing lasted 22 hours.

People wore stickers like “Parents Call the Shots,” and they put stickers on their children that read, “Made by God, Not By Pharma.”

Gabrielle Sellari of Shelton was one of the parents who spoke against removing the religious exemption.

For Sellari, her objection to the legislation is both medical and religious.

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Gabrielle Sellari of Shelton (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

“Having a religious conviction and having a medical concern are not mutually exclusive,” she said.

She stopped vaccinating her children when her older son started having adverse reactions such as eczema and insomnia. Her two-year-old son is not vaccinated.

Chris Lambert said he was pro-vaccine and vaccinated his first two children without any issue. But when his third son was 18 months old and got his first dose of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, he had a seizure.

Lambert, who vowed to leave Connecticut if lawmakers repeal the religious exemption, said he reported the adverse reaction to the doctor.

“Would you give him another vaccine?” Lambert asked the committee.

For those in favor of repealing the religious exemption, it was about protecting public health.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg said they were there to protect a system that minimizes the spread of infectious diseases that used to plague our state and our country.

“We’re confident that what we’re doing is in the best interest of the people in the state of Connecticut,” Steinberg said.

He said the legislation may not be perfect and it may be modified, but what won’t change is the bill’s intent to eliminate the religious exemption.

Linda Niccolai, an epidemiologist at Yale School of Public Health, said the phenomenon of “vaccine hesitancy” is causing Connecticut’s immunization rate to go in the wrong direction.

“It’s really an excuse of religion because it’s not an exemption because most religious doctrines don’t prohibit vaccination,” Niccolai said.

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There are 2.3% of children in Connecticut schools that claim a religious exemption to vaccination. That’s a slight dip from the 2.5% reported in August.

Last year, 7,800 students abstained from mandatory vaccines using the exemption.

Between 2009 and the present school year, the number of religious exemptions used to avoid required vaccinations for school entry nearly tripled, from 0.8% to 2.3%. Overall measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination rates dropped by 2.3% over the same time period, from 98.5% to 96.2%, according to Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell.

The school-level immunization data showed that 134 schools with more than 30 kindergarten students had immunization rates below 95% for the 2018-19 school year. At least 41 of those schools were under 90%.

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Linda Niccolai, an epidemiologist at Yale School of Public Health (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Niccolai said infections can start in a small pocket of unimmunized children and then spread.

She said at least 20% of Connecticut schools are vulnerable to a measles epidemic. Those schools are located in 70 towns in Connecticut, which means about 40% of the towns in Connecticut are not protected from a measles epidemic.

“We need to get ahead of the next epidemic,” Niccolai said.

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DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell talks to Rep. Vincent Candelora (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Matt Cartter, the state epidemiologist at DPH, said that because Connecticut has a high immunization rate overall, there have not been outbreaks associated with under-immunized schools.

However, “immunity is not perfect,” Cartter said.

He said pockets of under-immunized communities allowed a measles outbreak to last for almost 10 months in New York.

“After looking at the trends, I believe we can no longer afford to put our schoolchildren at risk of infectious diseases by allowing non-medical exemptions to vaccination,” DPH Commissioner Coleman-Mitchell told the committee. “We should not wait until our vaccination rates decline any further, or wait for the next measles outbreak, to take action.”

Coleman-Mitchell noted that the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019.

“Globally, the return of measles is one of the first signs that a country’s public health system is starting to weaken and degrade,” she added.