Enlarge /. Image of anti-vaccine protesters in the Connecticut legislative office building. They formed a prayer group and said the promise of fidelity and the Father our before they sang, "Healthy children belong in school."
The fight for vaccinations intensified this week in Connecticut when state lawmakers narrowly submitted – with short-term changes – a bill aimed at banning religious vaccine exemptions for children.
If the measure is adopted, parents can no longer use their religious beliefs as a valid reason not to provide their children with life-saving vaccinations that would otherwise be required to enter public and private schools and day care centers.
The legislature's public health committee passed the law on Monday by 14 votes to 11, but not before a short-term change that would be grandfather to children who already have such an exception. In the adopted version, the amended law would only apply to newly enrolled children.
The bill was fueled by reports from state health authorities that religious exceptions increased 25 percent year over year, reducing the overall vaccination rate in state schools. According to the Connecticut Health Department, 2.5 percent of kindergarten teachers have religious exceptions. The department estimated that some 7,800 children were granted religious exemption in the 2018-2019 school year.
The nationwide measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination rate in nursery schools declined by 0.4 percentage points last year and is currently 95.9 percent. While health authorities see 95 percent as a threshold for effective herd immunity, vaccination rates in schools are not uniform. That said, some schools have groups of unvaccinated children, which increases the risk of outbreaks. According to government data, 134 schools have MMR rates below 95 percent and 41 schools have MMR rates below 90 percent.
"The risk of children who are not vaccinated will increase," said Democratic Senator Saud Anwar, a South Windsor doctor, told Hartford Courant if lawmakers do nothing. "It happens in other parts of the world."
But like in other states, anti-vaccine proponents quickly protested the proposed law. Last week, a public hearing on the law reportedly attracted thousands of people and hundreds of vaccine supporters signed up to testify. The hearing lasted 21 hours. Anti-vaccine supporters returned to the capital on Monday to protest the bill.
The protests have clearly influenced legislative decisions, and some suggest that the protests against vaccines should encourage a slower review of the bill.
"Democratic leadership of the Public Health Committee ignored over 20 hours of public testimony and the voices of over 5,000 citizens to speed up a bill without giving politicians the courtesy to review last minute changes," said Len Fasano, Republican Senate chairman, in a written letter saying, "If we have a month to go ahead with the committee's work on legislation, why rush?"
But other opponents in the legislature seem to have their own suspicions about vaccines and their effectiveness.
"The whole idea of injecting a witch's brew with chemicals that might work in a laboratory – if it gets into the body, there's no telling what will happen," said Rep. Jack Hennessy, a Bridgeport Democrat, last week told an NBC Partner. “What is presented in this calculation is not the truth. It is not a one size fits all. "
Ultimately, all Republicans and two Democrats in committee voted against the measure. It will be transferred to the state house and senate before the end of the legislative period on May 6. Proponents of the measure said they would continue to update and improve the bill, the Courant noted.
In January, similar protests from vaccine supporters led state legislators to take a measure to ban religious exceptions. The legislator who supported the measure promised to continue trying to pass the ban.