Bill Would Limit Exemptions to Medical, Bona Fide Religious Reasons
TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vitale which would statutorily define the acceptable exemptions from mandatory student immunizations was approved today by the Health Committee by a vote of 6-2.
“This bill is – simply and unequivocally – about preserving public health, and ensuring that when someone opts out of a mandatory student immunization, that they have a legitimate reason for doing so, spelled out in black and white in the law,” said Senator Weinberg, D-Bergen. “Unfortunately, the issue of student immunizations is an emotionally-charged topic, with scientifically unfounded and discredited information standing in as fact. While we need to be mindful of legitimate medical and religious reasons for students abstaining from vaccinations, we should not give credence to false science and put the public health in jeopardy.”
“Because of the rise of vaccination as a medical practice, we don’t have widespread epidemics of polio or smallpox in this country anymore,” said Senator Vitale, D-Middlesex. “We’ve actually been able to eradicate some of the deadliest and most virulent diseases that threatened public health only a few generations back. In order to preserve public health, we have to limit the reasons that students can be exempted from mandatory immunizations, in order to protect them and protect the non-immunized public from facing an epidemic.”
The bill, S-1759, would provide statutory clarification for the State policy that governs exemptions from mandatory student immunizations. The bill would provide that in order to be exempt from the required student immunizations at the elementary, secondary and higher education levels, a student, or their parent or guardian if the student is a minor, must provide either:
• a written statement, submitted to the school by a licensed physician, indicating that a vaccine must be withheld for a medical purpose and for a specific period of time. An exemption under this provision must have a medically valid rationale, as determined by regulation by the Commissioner of Health and Senior Services;
• or documentation, submitted to the school by the student or the student’s parent or guardian, explaining how the administration of the vaccine conflicts with the bona fide religious tenets or practices of the student or his or her family.
Under the bill, a general philosophical or moral objection to the vaccination would not be sufficient to grant exemption from statutorily-required student immunizations. In order to qualify for a religious exemption, the student or parent would have to provide a written statement, notarized, signed, and sworn by the person, which includes an explanation of the person’s religious tenet or practice that is being violated as a result of require vaccination, information indicating that this tenet or practice is consistently held by the person, a statement that the tenet or practice is not solely an expression of the person’s political, sociological, philosophical or moral views, or concerns related to the safety or efficacy of the vaccination, and a statement that the person understands the risk and benefits of vaccination, to the health of the student and to the general public health at large.
Finally, the bill would require an individual seeking a religious exemption to provide a signed statement from a licensed physician, or another individual as designated by the Commissioner of Health, indicating the person has received individual counseling from the physician concerning risks and benefits of vaccination. A school or institution would be prohibited from exempting a student from mandatory immunization unless the student or their parent or guardian complies with all the applicable requirements set forth in the bill.
“The intent of this bill is to spell out the very specific guidelines that a student or parent would have to go through to be exempted from mandatory student vaccination,” said Senator Vitale. “While we want to respect people’s religious beliefs and legitimate medical concerns, we cannot allow widespread exemption from immunization based on fear and false science. Not only does it put the student at risk, but it creates a risk to the general public health and well-being.”
Recently, there has been an anti-vaccination movement in this country, spurred on by a controversial British study, which has since been disproved and discredited, linking the administration of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination to autism. As a result of fears about vaccination, parents have either delayed or refused to vaccinate their children, resulting in outbreaks of previously well-controlled diseases such as a 2005 measles outbreak in Indiana and the sharp spike in cases of pertussis, also known as whooping cough, in New Jersey this year. Statewide, there have been 972 confirmed cases of whooping cough this year, accounting for nearly one third of all 3,215 reported cases since 2001, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently studying whooping cough outbreaks in New Jersey and 17 other states.
“I think the recent rise in whooping cough cases is a perfect example of what happens when parents give into fear and refuse to vaccinate their children,” said Senator Weinberg. “Whooping cough can be deadly to young children and individuals with compromised immune systems, and the spike in reported cases in the Garden State can be directly contributed to the school of thought that mandatory vaccines are either not needed, or somehow detrimental to a student’s health. In order to ensure the greater public health, we must limit the exemptions provided for student immunizations, so that we don’t run the risk of putting everyone in harm’s way.”
The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.