Children rush up and down the halls of an elementary school. Most of them have been vaccinated against measles, as required by law, but a few have not, because their parents claimed that immunization conflicts with their sincere religious beliefs. Another student had not been vaccinated because she is being treated for cancer and has a compromised immune system. If she catches measles from one of her unvaccinated classmates, it could threaten her health or even her life.
That kind of scenario is what led Massachusetts State Representative Andy Vargas (CAS’15) to file a bill to remove the religious exemption from vaccinations for children entering school in the state. With measles outbreaks returning to Massachusetts and other states, he says, unvaccinated students can present a real threat to the health of some classmates.
Massachusetts law requires students entering public school to have been vaccinated against measles and several other infectious diseases, but offers exemptions for medical or religious reasons. About three-quarters of the rising number of exemptions now are religious, Vargas says. (Just this week, New York lawmakers ended their state’s religious exemption.)
Measles was considered eliminated in the United States by 2000, but in recent years several highly publicized outbreaks in communities with low vaccination rates have raised questions about why the disease is resurfacing. Immunocompromised patients in particular are at increased risk from the highly contagious virus.
Vargas (D-3rd Essex) says he was impelled to act by the concerns of constituents who support vaccination and by the scientific consensus that vaccines are safe, despite fears to the contrary that have spread among parents and on social media. Debunked studies and a wave of anti-vaxxer activism have left some parents with the false impression that vaccinations can cause autism and a variety of other health problems.
The law’s medical exemption would be unaffected, and Vargas’ bill would not compel parents to vaccinate their children, but they would have to find an alternative to public education if they choose not to vaccinate for religious reasons.
Currently known as HD.4284, An Act Relative to Vaccination and Public Health?, the bill would strike the third paragraph of Section 15 of Chapter 76 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which reads in part, “No child whose parent or guardian states in writing that vaccination or immunization conflicts with his sincere religious beliefs shall be required to present said physician’s certificate in order to be admitted to school.”
The bill now has 35 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle, and Vargas is optimistic about its prospects for passage this session, which ends July 31. A hearing before the House Public Health Committee should be scheduled soon. If passed by the House, it must move through the state Senate before landing on the governor’s desk for signature.
BU Today talked to the 25-year-old legislator about his bill, the backlash, and the vaccine issue.
BU Today: Why did you file this bill?
Vargas: I had three constituents reach out to me saying they were concerned about what is happening across the country with the anti-vaxxer movement and the outbreaks of measles. One of them is a young man who has a compromised immune system, and the other two are parents of a child that has a compromised immune system and can’t get vaccinated either. We looked at the science and looked around and saw nobody was acting on this, and decided it was time to step up to the plate.
Isn’t this a question of religious freedom?
I grew up Catholic, and I am Catholic, and I surely respect religious beliefs and believe in religious freedom, but there comes a point when religious freedom affects everybody else. Once religious freedom takes away the freedom of a parent to safely send their child to school, that’s where the line is drawn with me.
Why is a change in the law necessary?
School districts don’t want to be put in the position of saying, “We don’t think this is sincere religious belief.” No district wants to be sued for that. There are over 2,000 exemptions a year now in Massachusetts. About 75 percent are religious exemptions. The challenge is that we have some school districts [none in Vargas’ district] that have exemption rates as high as 20 to 25 percent, and when you have concentrated pockets like that, it gets dangerous.
It would seem that some of the people claiming religious exemptions are simply opposed to vaccinations and using that to avoid immunizing their children.
That’s what we think is happening. The rates of people identified as religious have not increased since the 1980s, but what has increased is the rate of religious exemptions. You look at exemptions from the 1980s and the rate now and it’s a 500 percent increase.
This issue goes beyond schools, right?
There are certainly implications for the broader society, even if the focus in this is on schools. If you have more folks with these exemptions and they’re not protected from these diseases and happen to catch it, and perhaps walk into a hospital without knowing they have it, everybody in that hospital who has a compromised immune system is at risk, and sometimes the disease could be the last straw to kill somebody.
The fears driving the anti-vaxxer movement have been widely discredited by scientists, yet those fears persist. Is this indicative of something larger in the culture now, with “fake news” and social media?
Absolutely. There was just a good New York Times article, “Russian Trolls Used Vaccine Debate to Sow Discord, Study Finds.” Misinformation online is certainly part of the challenge of this day and age. Although when you search vaccines on Twitter now, they will automatically provide you with a CDC link and verified information on vaccines. It looks like Twitter is trying to limit the spread of misinformation. But it’s a huge challenge when you have people spewing things online that have no scientific credibility and scaring moms, in spite of the fact that the science is very clear on this.
You’ve become a bit of a target over this bill.
We’ve had our fair share of anti-vaxxers calling and emailing. Some of them tagged my wife on Instagram, saying, “Wait till you and your husband have kids! I hope nobody traumatizes and infects them!” and all this stuff. Like anything in public policy that’s worthwhile, that matters, you’re going to get some pushback. And we were certainly ready for that. But it’s been overwhelmingly positive, the emails from people saying, “Thank you so much, I have a two-month-old baby who isn’t old enough to get all the vaccines, so I appreciate you doing this,” or from a son or daughter of an elderly person with a compromised immune system who is now at risk. It’s been encouraging to get that feedback.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.