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July 15, 2020


This week's news conference detailing state legislation to repeal religious and other non-medical exemptions from vaccinations.
This week's news conference detailing state legislation to repeal religious and other non-medical exemptions from vaccinations. Photo Credit: Provided

State, Federal Lawmakers Seek Repeal Of Religious Vaccination Exemptions

Elected officials at the state and federal level are teaming up to speed up legislation to boost the percentage of people, particularly children, receiving vaccinations against increasingly deadly diseases like measles.

U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, who represents southern Westchester and the Bronx, has joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers in introducing the VACCINES Act, H.R. 2862, legislation to increase immunization rates across the country and prevent outbreaks of contagious diseases.

“The science is settled: Vaccines save lives,” Engel said. “This is a non-partisan issue and I’m pleased to join my colleagues from both sides of the aisle in supporting this legislation, which will promote access, increase utilization and foster research of vaccines. This bill will help reverse the tide of recent disease outbreaks and I urge my colleagues to quickly adopt this measure for the sake of our public health.”

As New York faces is worst measles outbreak in decades, state Sen. David Carlucci, who represents parts of Westchester and Rockland counties, joined other senators from New York City as well as childhood cancer survivors and transplant recipients to urge an end to religious or other non-medical exemptions from vaccinations.

At a May 28 news conference, Carlucci expressed his support for S 2994/A 2371 introduced by Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, D-Bronx.

Carlucci, a Democrat from New City, said: "Through no fault of their own, people battling cancer or who have gotten a transplant are put at risk because a group of people has decided their ideological beliefs are more important than public health. Putting people in harm's way, who are now receiving life-saving treatment, is selfish and misguided. Vaccines save lives and with the current measles outbreaks, legislation to end non-medical exemptions is paramount.”

Hoylman said: “With over 840 confirmed cases, New York is facing a state of emergency with its worst measles outbreak in four decades. . . .Our state’s inaction, in the face of such an overwhelming public health emergency, is appalling."

Hoytman explained that in 2014, elected officials in California acted decisively and repealed all non-medical exemptions to vaccination requirements under their state law after suffering an outbreak at Disneyland that resulted in at least 131 cases of measles. "New York is currently facing more than six times the number of cases that spurred California to action,," Hoytman said.

Assemblyman Dinowitz said: "One of the most common -- and most dangerous -- arguments presented by 'anti-vaxxers' is that somehow the disease is more safe than the vaccine. For those who are too young to be vaccinated or who have survived childhood cancer, organ transplants, or any number of other medical issues that compromise an immune system - there can be no doubt that this argument is false. It is absolutely imperative that everyone who is medically able to get vaccinated does so in order to protect those who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons."

Nancy Goodman, founder of Kids v Cancer, urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New Castle to support this legislation.

After California repealed non-medical exemptions, that state's vaccination rates improved demonstrably, particularly in schools with the lowest rates of compliance. The percentage of kindergarten students in the 2017-18 school year with all their required vaccines was 95.1 percent -- a 4.7 percentage point increase over 2014-15.

Current law requires children to receive vaccines for polio, mumps, measles, diphtheria, rubella, HiB, hepatitis B, and varicella. Hoylman and Assemblymember Dinowitz’s legislation would repeal an exemption to this law that allows children to avoid vaccination on the grounds that they contradict the “genuine and sincere religious belief” of the child’s parents or guardians.

Engel said that immunizations "protect not only the health of our own children, but the health of entire communities. . . . While the vast majority of people have received the recommended immunizations for preventable diseases, a growing share of young children have not." The current measles epidemic has quickly spread in communities with clusters of unvaccinated people, according to Engel.

The federal Vaccine Awareness Campaign to Champion Immunization Nationally and Enhance Safety (VACCINES) Act will give the Center for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) resources it needs to understand what drives vaccine hesitancy and barriers to immunization. They will also be able to better track where there are changes in vaccine confidence or refusal rates. With this information, they will be able to predict where an outbreak might occur because of low immunization rates and target vaccine education campaigns to those areas before an outbreak occurs.