More NJ Parents Seek Religious Vaccine Exemptions

By Briana Vannozzi

It’s not a public health threat yet, but New Jersey’s Health Department says more and more kids are seeking religious vaccine exemptions. The number of unvaccinated primary school kids is climbing at increased rates.

“I think parents are really concerned about side effects being on the news and other places that vaccines are bad, they are associated with autism,” said Dr. Kitaw Demissie, professor and chair of epidemiology at Rutgers School of Public Health.

The Department of Health says religious exemptions more than doubled from 2009 to 2016, from 3,865 primary school children — just under 1 percent — to over 9,500. Hunterdon County had the highest exemptions — nearly 5 percent, or one in every 20 elementary school students.

“I feel like any medical procedure, any injection should have an option of refusal and a right of informed consent,” said Sue Collins, co-founder of New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice.

Parents like Collins say families should be given more than one path to health.

“Right now, in this country, we expect children to get 72 doses of vaccines by the time they’re 18. Back in 1962, there was a total of five doses; 1983, 24 doses. So we just keep adding more and more and more vaccines. The studies are not being done to see how these vaccines in combination affect the efficacy and safety and if they are doing what they’re purported to do,” she said.

“The scientific evidence is clear and the consensus among scientific groups is clear that vaccines are very safe. Side effects are very rare — one in 2 million,” Demissie said.

Rutgers School of Public Health epidemiology chair is concerned about risks for disease outbreak. Passaic County recently had a confirmed travel-related measles case and Washington state is experiencing a mumps outbreak.

“If the numbers are small, there is what you call herd immunity. Which means, there’s a resistance actually to the spread of diseases in the community which results from higher percentage of people in the community being vaccinated,” Demissie said.

To get an exemption, a parent needs to submit a letter stating the vaccination interferes with their child’s religious rights. Now the state can’t challenge that, but says it also can’t be used purely for philosophical concerns. The state Health Department tells me despite the change in numbers, a vast majority of school children — more than 95 percent — have received required immunizations.

“I have to think that more people are aware they can get an exemption. So whether they have a religious belief or maybe a personal belief on vaccines I think the awareness is a big part of it,” said Cumberland County Health Department Health Officer Megan Sheppard.

Cumberland County’s Health Department saw a small increase, but public health experts say parents are taking a relaxed attitude because they’ve never experienced a devastating outbreak in their lifetime. In other words, they say, vaccines have become their own worst enemy by being effective.