EDITORIAL: Hearing set for religious exemption bill

EDITORIAL: Hearing set for religious exemption bill

Members of the “baby boom” generation well know that vaccination against disease can work, and work safely. After all, they were among the millions of American kids who received either the Salk or Sabin vaccine, which practically ended the scourge of paralytic polio by 1962.

But today’s parents never went through the polio scare, and that could be one reason why the number of families seeking religious exemptions to vaccination for their children is on the rise.

When we consider how widespread and destructive the refusal to follow basic safety procedures such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance has been during the current pandemic, we have to wonder whether we’re seeing a serious and dangerous decline in the belief in science.

Last year the General Assembly's Public Health Committee held a 22-hour, in-person hearing on a proposal to eliminate the state's religious exemption from vaccinations for schoolchildren, but the topic was dropped when the present pandemic ended the legislative session early.

The idea remains contentious, however, and two similar bills are up for consideration this session. On Tuesday there will be a virtual hearing via Zoom, limited to 24 hours, on those bills. People can also submit written testimony.

This is a thorny issue because it puts the public good of having most students immunized against common childhood illnesses in collision with parents’ right to opt out, which may be based on religion but often falls under the heading of “personal belief.” To make matters more urgent, this question comes up in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, “By following the recommended schedule and fully immunizing children on time, parents protect their children against 14 vaccine-preventable diseases. If a high enough percentage of children are vaccinated, outbreaks can also be prevented.”

It is generally accepted that a vaccination rate of 95 percent is needed to maintain “herd immunity,” but that rate has been dropping in this state for several years — in some cases below 90 percent — while the number of students with religious exemptions has been rising. (Under the two bills, vaccination exemptions for medical reasons would remain.)

DPH figures show that in the 2018-19 school year alone, the rate of religious exemptions rose by 25 percent. Since that was before COVID emerged, there must be some other reason for the increase.

With celebrities holding so much influence over public opinion these days, it may be that remarks against vaccination made by such big names as actors Jessica Biel and Jim Carrey have had a major effect. And TV personality Jenny McCarthy has asserted for years that vaccines caused her son’s autism — a link that has long been discredited.

But the biggest name of all is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer who is now better known as an anti-vaccine crusader. Instagram, on which he had 800,000 followers, recently took down his account “for repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines.” Members of his own family have accused him of spreading “dangerous misinformation” about vaccines. 

Given all of that, Tuesday’s virtual hearing may well steer this state’s course on vaccination for some time to come. This is bound to be an emotional issue, but we hope the state will come down on the side of science.

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