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Lawsuit over school immunization data backed by anti-vax group

Lawsuit over school immunization data backed by anti-vax group

reporter photo

MERIDEN — A lawsuit filed against the state Department of Public Health for publishing school immunization rates claims that the DPH has made targets of the students and parents at the Meliora Academy on Murdock Avenue.

The lawsuit was filed last month by the parents of a student who attends Meliora Academy and is backed by the anti-vaccine group Informed Choice CT.

The DPH published immunization rates for 2017-18 that showed Meliora Academy had the seventh-highest percentage of students with religious or medical exemptions. The department was supposed to release 2018-19 data this week, but it is now “under consideration,” a spokesman said.

Informed Choice CT was listed as a plaintiff in early court documents, but was removed because of a scheduling conflict with its lawyer, said group founder Lee Ann Ducat.

“We were going to be part of the suit but our attorney couldn’t make it,” Ducat said. “We were concerned about any additional (DPH) data. We wanted to get (the lawsuit) on the books and give pause to DPH.”

Kristen and Brian Festa, whose son attends Meliora Academy, have asked the court to issue an injunction halting the distribution of new data and are seeking the removal of the 2017-18 figures, posted on the DPH website. The Meliora Academy is a private school that services students on the autism spectrum and related disorders. 

According to the DPH data, 18.5 percent of the students enrolled in the school claim religious or medical exemptions against vaccinations, including Festa’s son.

An employee who answered the phone at the school Wednesday said: “We are not involved in the lawsuit, and they are not commenting on it.”

The suit says releasing the 2017-18 data exposed the school’s students and parents as “potential targets of harassment.”

The couple point to a proliferation of “hateful and vitriolic statements that appeared on the internet against unvaccinated students and their parents.” 

The Festas could not be reached for comment. 

Kristen Festa was quoted in a Fox 61 news report earlier this year saying vaccines harmed her son, and has testified against eliminating the religious exemption.

A DPH spokesman said the department would not comment on pending litigation but forwarded a copy of an April letter from Commissioner Renee Coleman Mitchell to school superintendents, medical advisors, school nurses and supervisors.

In the letter, Coleman-Mitchell stated that 704 measles cases were confirmed in 22 states during 2019, the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since measles was eliminated in 2000. She also pointed to the measles outbreak in New York City impacting hundreds of families and three measles cases confirmed in Connecticut. 

“A disease outbreak is less likely to occur at schools where high numbers of students are immunized,” Coleman-Mitchell stated. “Herd immunity is achieved when the vaccination rate in a community is high enough to protect unvaccinated children.”

She said medically fragile children are most at risk. Children undergoing chemotherapy or require drugs that suppress their immune system cannot be safely vaccinated and are less likely to fight off illness.

“Consequently, this information bears special importance to the parents or guardians of such children, who may wish to access information about their child’s school vaccination rates for their child’s protection,” Coleman-Mitchell wrote. “In addition, the Department of Public Health’s goal in releasing school-level information is to increase public awareness of immunization rates in local communities which may lead to increased engagement and focus on increasing immunization rates to reduce the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Ducat disputed the effectiveness of herd immunity. 

“No vaccine works all the time. All vaccines come with risks,” she said. “We all need to support each other’s decision on this issue or stay home in a bubble.”

A Hartford Superior Court judge has continued the case until July.
Twitter: @Cconnbiz