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On Monday, the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee approved a bill that would eliminate the religious exemption to public school immunization requirements. Unfortunately, the bill was amended to grandfather-in children who had already claimed the exemption. This is a poorly conceived compromise that can’t be allowed to stand.
Just about every state in the union has a religious and/or philosophical exemption for vaccines required to enroll children in public school. That wasn’t such a big deal a generation ago, because a very small number of parents took advantage of those exceptions. As Dr. Erin Flanagan-Klygis said in the AMA Journal of Ethics in 2003, “as long as vaccination rates for the general population remain high and the number of exemptors at a minimum, society can tolerate the exemptions.”
However, exemptions are on the rise, and so is the danger to the population. In Connecticut, the number of religious exemptions was 0.8% in 2009: a decade later it had more than tripled to 2.5%. Between the 2017-18 and the 2018-19 school years, the total number of students utilizing religious exemptions jumped 25%. Further, the total number of schools whose immunization rates for the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine fell below the CDC standard went from 109 in 2017-18 to 149 in 2018-19.
It’s strange to see such a surge in religious exemptions during a time when religion itself is on the decline in our country. It’s doubly strange, because no major religion actually opposes vaccines. The closest any major, mainstream religion gets is Catholicism’s discomfort with vaccines with a stem cell lineage derived from aborted fetuses in the 1960s, but even the Vatican is encouraging parents to vaccinate while calling for alternative vaccines to be developed.
Turns out that a lot of parents claiming religious exemptions are doing it not because of faith, but because of their skepticism about vaccines. The religious exemption is just a loophole.
So if this isn’t about religion, what is it all about?
Anti-vaxxers often encourage people to have an open mind and look at the evidence, so I did. I put on my librarian hat and combed through the scientific literature.
It turns out that vaccines are, for the most part, very safe, according to a systematic review of the literature published in Pediatrics: The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The most dangerous adverse effect listed was moderate evidence linking a rotavirus vaccine with intussusception, which is a serious intestinal disorder. However, intussusception is not dangerous if treated promptly.
The MMR vaccine also is associated in a small number of cases with febrile seizures, which according to experts is scary-looking but not ultimately harmful. More serious issues such as epilepsy were not associated with the vaccine.
And that’s pretty much it. Autism? Nope. Eczema? Not even a little. Dangerous ingredients? They’re fine. In every case, the benefits of vaccination for both the child and society as a whole greatly outweigh the dangers.
So why the skepticism? Because of the rabbit hole of the internet, and our old enemy, conspiracy-theory thinking.
If you believe your child’s troubles were caused by vaccines, I guarantee you there’s a message board out there full of parents and “experts” who believe the same thing. Communities like this are self-reinforcing, creating a bubble into which no contrary evidence is allowed. Small events or misleading statements get magnified, while real scientific evidence is discarded as a conspiracy.
That’s how it works in too many places today, from flat earthers to climate change deniers to the President of the United States. It has to stop. A line has to be drawn.
The House, when it considers this bill, must strike the compromise that grandfathers the children who have already taken advantage of the religious exemption. Anything else will be giving in to the forces of unreality and conspiracy.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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