Twice last month I woke at dawn to head to my state capitol of Hartford, Connecticut. Legislators were deliberating HB-5044, a bill that would remove non-medical exemptions for vaccines required for school and daycare enrollment and, ultimately, make our state’s schools safer and better protected from outbreaks.
I wanted to provide testimony, not just as a Connecticut parent, but also as someone who has worked for decades to protect families from vaccine-preventable diseases as the executive director of the nonprofit organization Vaccinate Your Family.
Several hundred people also came to Hartford to voice their opinions on this issue, as well as dozens of medical professionals from esteemed organizations like the Academy of Pediatrics and Yale.
Most of those who came as experts also came as the parents and grandparents of children here in our state. They offered legislators scientific research on vaccines, vaccine safety, and disease outbreaks. They offered facts.
Sadly, interspersed throughout these experts, were individuals spinning legitimate-sounding (but nonetheless inaccurate) pseudoscience in order to mislead legislators and dazzle the audience of families sitting in the spillover room, where I spent my day watching the hearing — a hearing that lasted all day and well into the next morning.
I’d seen these tactics before. During the past 25 years, I’ve watched charlatans all over the world sow confusion and spread false information about vaccines, but here in my home state it felt intensely personal as I feel a responsibility to ensure our children are safe from preventable diseases.
It was hard to listen to speaker after speaker — many of whom were not even from Connecticut — making claims about the safety of vaccines, which worldwide experts have repeatedly refuted. It was hard to see people praying the rosary to guide the legislators into voting to keep exemptions in our schools, while discounting the many, many families I’ve met who’ve lost their precious children to preventable diseases. It was hard to watch individuals drape themselves in our nation’s flag, only to see them left dragging in the dirt outside the capitol.
Make no doubt, our families in Connecticut are being targeted by a concerted campaign to spread doubt about the life-saving necessity for vaccines and, as a result, many schools are now at risk of outbreaks. There are 134 Connecticut schools where the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination rate for kindergarten students falls below the 95% needed to ensure community immunity.
There has been a 25% increase in religious vaccine exemptions in the past two years, despite the fact that all major organized religions support vaccines. If we continue to see parents opt out of school vaccine requirements for non-medical reasons, it’s only a matter of time before we see a large-scale outbreak in our schools like those seen in neighboring New York last year.
Yes, parents have a right to choose whether they vaccinate their children, but states also have a right to protect the students in their care. And our children, including both healthy and medically compromised children (many whose parents came to testify), have the right to attend our schools without fear that those around them are leaving them at risk.
Restricting vaccine exemptions so that only those with legitimate medical reasons can opt out will help protect our state’s schools and daycares from dangerous diseases like measles, hepatitis b, and whooping cough. This isn’t wishful thinking. States with tighter exemption policies are proven to have higher vaccination rates and lower risk of outbreaks.
It is great news that our legislators passed HB-5044 out of the public health committee. Both my organization and my family supports the removal of non-medical exemptions wholeheartedly. Moving forward, I hope legislators asked to vote on this bill will dismiss the disinformation of a small group of anti-vaccine activists, and instead listen to the voices of Connecticut experts, parents, and families of immune-compromised children asking legislators to help protect our children.
New London County
Amy Pisani is the executive director of Vaccinate Your Family, a national non-profit whose mission is to ensure the timely vaccination of people of all ages.