Bills seek to change non-medical vaccination exemptions for school children

The Massachusetts Statehouse sits on 6.7 acres of land on Beacon Hill, Boston Mass. Oct. 25, 2019. Photo by Naa Dedei Coleman/ BU News Service

By Anastasia Lennon
BU News Service

BOSTON — A game of Legos, toddlers’ cries and giggles, and framed photos of children filled the Statehouse Tuesday afternoon as lawmakers considered bills that seek to change or eliminate non-medical exemptions for vaccinating schoolchildren.

One of the bills, sponsored by Rep. Andres Vargas, D-Haverhill, calls for the end of a state law that allows a child to attend school or day care without immunizations if the parent or guardian cites religious beliefs. Current law allows religious exemptions unless there is an emergency or epidemic declared by the Department of Public Health.

“The science is settled and agreed upon by all major scientific and health institutions of the world,” said Vargas in his testimony. “It is not a religious right to put other children at risk in the commonwealth.”

This year, the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy in its top 10 threats to global health.

If Vargas’ bill is passed, Massachusetts would join New York, West Virginia, California, Mississippi and Maine in eliminating non-medical exemptions for vaccinating schoolchildren. New York removed the exemption amidst the measles outbreak this past September, while California outlawed personal and religious exemptions in 2015.

Vargas’ legislation is just one of three that went before the Legislature’s Committee on Public Health. Rep. Paul Donato, D-Medford and Sen. Rebecca Rausch, D-Needham, presented their versions of the bill, both titled “An act promoting community immunity.”

The joint bills do not eliminate religious exemption and instead aim to standardize and centralize the requirements and process for acquiring exemptions in the state.

Instead of school or day care nurses making decisions about whether to approve an exemption, all forms would be obtained from and approved by the Department of Public Health. The change would mean that every guardian who seeks an exemption for their child would fill out the same form rather than one of the many different forms that exist now

“We do not have localized herd immunity throughout Massachusetts … we must not wait,” said Rausch, who is also on the public health committee. ”[The bill] means protecting everyone in the commonwealth from the spread of serious and sometimes deadly infectious, yet preventable, diseases.”

The bills also call for transparency by mandating that all programs — child care centers, universities, schools and summer camps — report vaccination data to DPH. If vaccination rates fall below an acceptable rate, local community members would be notified.

“I think all communities deserve to know if they’re at risk of contracting a disease and that’s what this bill does,” said Rep. Maria Duaime Robinson, D-Framingham.

At the center of this contentious issue were concerned parents, on both sides, worried about the health of their children.

“I believe the body is self-healing and self-regulating,” said Mary Connors, 59, a chiropractor from Easton. She did not vaccinate either of her daughters, who are now teenagers. “My belief was to protect my daughters’ cellular tissue from chemicals.”

Daniel Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard, grew emotional as he testified about his granddaughter, who is immunocompromised and cannot receive vaccinations after having a heart transplant at a young age.

“The only people in the state who can protect her are you,” Koretz pleaded. “That’s what’s at issue today. The action you take on this bill will determine the safety of my granddaughter.”

Other parents emotionally recounted in great detail the regression of their children shortly after receiving vaccines at a young age. They also credited schoolteachers and educators in public programs for helping in the recovery process — a resource to which their unimmunized children would lose access if Vargas’ bill passes.

According to survey data collected by the state, Barnstable, Dukes, Franklin and Berkshire counties have the highest levels of unimmunized kindergarten students with religious and medical exemptions. In Norfolk County, exemption rates are relatively low at 1.2 percent.

Rausch warned, though, that this data may not be accurate as programs are not mandated to report vaccination rates to the state.

The Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Massachusetts Chapter of the American College of Physicians and the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association all expressed support for Vargas’ bill and the removal of a religious exemption.

“The science is settled; religious exemptions need to be abolished so that children in our state can have a safe healthy environment in which to learn and play,” said Elizabeth Goodman, a pediatrician

This article was originally published in the Quincy Patriot-Ledger.

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