Immunization exemptions bill advances

TRENTON – A bill pitting public health concerns against private choice came before the Senate Health Committee today.

S1759 clarifies exemptions from student immunizations and was released 6-2 by the committee with Democrats and Republican Sen. Sam Thompson in favor of it.

Such an exemption would be based on one of several factors, including a written statement from a licensed physician; and documentation from parents about how it would conflict with religious tenets.

The bill sets out requirements, such as a statement that the person understands the risks and benefits of vaccinations, or information that the person’s religious beliefs are consistently held.

Before testimony began, Republican Sen. Robert Singer said he would vote no despite approving of immunizations in general, because he said this bill is too cumbersome and infringes on someone’s right to say no.

Democratic Sen. Robert Gordon said he has similar feelings. “I do have concerns, however, when government starts getting involved in determining what constitutes legitimate religious exemptions.”

He said, though, he would vote in favor at this point to move the  bill out of committee.

Republican Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego said that as both a lawmaker and mother she understands the emotional struggle involved and doesn’t feel she is in a position to tell someone they are wrong for making what is a deeply personal choice. She fears the bill places an onerous burden on parents seeking exemptions.

Several witnesses testified against the bill.

Liz Peter was one of those speaking in opposition. She said that current laws already address issues of sequestration in the event of an outbreak, and that religious beliefs should not be subject to the state’s review.

And another witness, Karen Steinberg, testified that she believes that the pertussis vaccine can actually help spread that disease.

And a retired nurse, Rita O’Grady, said the religious exemptions in place work just fine and this further legislation is not needed. She also raised issues of costs to parents in seeking such exemptions.

“It’s very immoral,’’ she said, for the state to intrude on personal religious beliefs.

She also claimed this bill is really about the pharmaceutical industry, who she said lobby and contribute to lawmakers in order to improve their business’ bottom line.

In support of the bill, however, were organizations such as Meningitis Angels. Carye Wynn, a survivor of meningitis who had not been immunized, told her story of recovery and said vaccines can save people’s lives. She said access to vaccines could save many families from unnecessary suffering of the kind she endured.

Supporters testified that unimmunized children put other children at risk.

A representative of the March of Dimes said vaccines are effective at protecting against a wide range of infections.

“If one person decides to opt out of immunizations,’’ she said, “it increases everybody’s risk.”

She said the state’s vaccination rate is about 38 percent compared to a national average over 76 percent, an indication, she said, that the state is doing something wrong.

And Dr. Howard Britt of the American Academy of Pediatrics said the state has an overriding concern to protect the public health.

Also in support, Dr. Drew Harris of the N.J.  Public Health Institute said that over the last six years, there has been a threefold increase in exemptions since the state amended its policy.

Immunization exemptions bill advances