Editorial: Repeal non-medical exemptions for measles vaccines

Renee Coleman-Mitchell, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Health speaks during a press conference at the Morton Government Center, in Bridgeport, Aug. 5, 2019. The press conference was held to announce that Fairfield Count has been selected to participate in the 2019 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The issue: An increasing number of school-age children in Connecticut are not getting vaccinated against childhood diseases that if contracted could be physically debilitating or life-threatening. A rise in religious exemptions from the mandatory vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella has driven a 31 percent increase in the number of schools in the state with fewer than 95 percent of kindergarten students vaccinated.

The 95-percent threshold is significant. Below that level a “herd immunity” is lost that protects even those not vaccinated.

The trend evident in new data released last month by the state Department of Health is alarming.

Across the state, 134 public and private schools had fewer than 95 percent of kindergartners vaccinated against measles in the 2018-19 school year, the most recent numbers. That’s up from 102 schools the previous year.

The number of students claiming religious exemptions jumped 25 percent, the largest in the decade the state has tracked the data.

Connecticut collects vaccination numbers for kindergartners and seventh graders. The measles, mumps and rubella vaccination is mandatory for children to attend school unless they request a medical or a religious exemption.

Some background, please: Release of the school-by-school information has been controversial. Two Bristol parents unsuccessfully sued to block the public release of the latest numbers. They maintained it could pinpoint children who were not vaccinated.

The new public health commissioner, Renee Coleman-Mitchell, made previously confidential data public with the 2017-18 school year in May, which was an eye-opener.

Then she reversed course and said she wouldn’t tell the public the latest results. For months into the summer, she wouldn’t respond to House and Senate Democratic leaders who asked for her advice on whether to repeal the religious exemption.

Gov. Ned Lamont overruled his health commissioner and convinced her to provide the statistics to the public, once verified.

“This information needs to be available to the public and lawmakers so they are not operating in the dark as they make decisions for their families and shape public policy,” the governor said Monday.

Keep in mind: Concern about immunization heightened with a measles outbreak earlier this year, with an epicenter in nearby New York City. Connecticut saw three cases of the disease that had been declared eradicated in the year 2000. Though most children will recover from measles, it can be dangerous. For every 1,000 children who contract the disease, one or two will die, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Possible complications include encephalitis, which can lead to convulsions and cause deafness or intellectual disability.

What we said: “Legislators should remove the religious exemption; no mainstream religion bans vaccines. Some parents may have worried the vaccines could cause autism, but that decades-old study, since retracted, has been thoroughly debunked.”

— July 25, 2019

What should happen next: The worsening trend documented in the school-by-school information made public Monday cannot be ignored. Legislators must revisit the 50-year-old exemption in the next special session and remove it to better protect all.

Connecticut Media Group