Parents, doctors debate merits of mandatory vaccination

West Tisbury School has one of the highest exemption rates in the state.

Photo by Rich Saltzberg.

Bay State parents can opt their children out of vaccination requirements by claiming they conflict with “sincere religious beliefs,” an exemption parents lobbied to expand last Wednesday.

Vaccines can cause health problems, including fever, though they are almost never lasting, and pale in comparison to the risks presented by measles, diphtheria, and other ailments, according to Dr. Richard Moriarty, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Testifying before the Committee on Education, Dr. Moriarty argued against adding a “personal beliefs” exemption to the requirement that children in Massachusetts schools are immunized against several communicable diseases.

Dr. Moriarty said 20 states now allow for “philosophical exemptions,” and 11 of those states are now thinking of scaling back their exemptions because of recent outbreaks of whooping cough and measles.

Mothers who said their children were injured by vaccines and believe vaccinations caused autism in their children made the case in favor of expanding the exemption.

Sangeeta Shere said she gave her baby boy two additional vaccinations ahead of an overseas trip, which proved to be “a blow that completely shattered our lives,” and led to illness and eventually autism in her son, who is now 18.

Dr. Moriarty said there have been 20 studies investigating the purported link between vaccinations and autism, and “no connection” has been found between the two. While vaccines can cause side effects, Dr. Moriarty said there is “not what they call biological plausibility” that autism could be caused by vaccines.

Vaccines’ usefulness is bolstered when nearly everyone has been immunized, and vaccinations have been used to eradicate smallpox and nearly eliminate polio and measles, said Dr. Sean Palfrey, professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston University School of Medicine.

Dr. Moriarty said some children, such as those undergoing chemotherapy, should not be given vaccines because their immune systems are too weak.

The bill (S 317) was filed by Sen. Joan Lovely at the request of a constituent from Salem, and there is some disagreement among lawmakers about whether to expand the exemptions.

“Given what we’ve seen with respect to measles outbreaks, I am not inclined to support a bill that would give a personal exemption for any reason,” said House Education Committee Chairwoman Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat. She told the News Service, “I think vaccinations are very important to maintaining the health of our population. I think we need to be very careful about any exemptions that we give.”

Sen. Barbara L’Italien, an Andover Democrat, said her son had a “very severe reaction to vaccination,” including fever and sores, and then experienced a “severe backslide in his communication.”

Ms. L’Italien’s son, now 25, is on the autism spectrum, and she said she is not sure that the vaccines were the cause, but she has heard from many people whose children reacted badly to vaccines.

“I think that there needs to be some flexibility shown here,” L’Italien told the News Service. She said, “I think they’re very hard-line about it. I understand why they’re hard-line about it, but having been on the receiving end, I think there has to be some flexibility here.”

With a doctor’s opinion and the Department of Public Health acting as arbiter in disputes, children can be exempt from school vaccination requirements if vaccines would endanger their health. The law also allows parents to circumvent the vaccine requirement by stating the vaccination conflicts with their religious beliefs.

The number of religious exemptions for kindergarteners has steadily risen over the years, from 147 in the 1987–88 school year to 837 in the 2013–14 school year, according to the Department of Public Health. From the 1984–85 school year to the school year ending in 2014, the total number of exemptions ballooned more than eight times, from 120 to 1,161.

Now about 1.5 percent of Massachusetts students have some form of exemption from vaccination requirements, up from less than a fifth of 1 percentage point 30 years ago.

Many schools have no students with vaccination exemptions, and nearly all others that report data to the state show a percentage of exempt students in the single digits.

Schools with relatively high rates span the social strata. Both the Hunnewell Elementary School in Wellesley and the Taylor Elementary School in New Bedford have exemption rates north of 9 percent. The rate at the West Tisbury School is 26.7 percent, and it is 31.4 percent at the Waldorf School in Lexington.

Overall, Massachusetts ranked at or near the top, compared with other states, for vaccination rates in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.