FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 12, 2021
Coalition Urges Legislators to Preserve Equitable Access to Education & Health Justice on Vaccinations
BOSTON – A coalition of healthcare advocates called Health Choice 4 Action Massachusetts today urged legislators at a public hearing before the Joint Committee on Public Health to preserve access to education and promote health equity and justice in their efforts to address disparities in vaccination rates in Massachusetts. Though the group recognizes the transformative power of vaccines to control infectious diseases, they cautioned legislators about provisions in two vaccination bills being considered by the committee that would disproportionately impact marginalized communities.
One set of bills with which the coalition has concerns is Senate Bill 1517 and companion House Bill 2271 known as the Community Immunity Act. These bills would allow children to be vaccinated without their parents’ consent or knowledge, even if the child is young or intellectually disabled. Parents might not ever know since medical records would be hidden from parents without a court order. The coalition argues that medical decision-making for children is a fundamental right of parents that needs to be preserved and that parents would likely be astonished and concerned by this provision. Additionally, parental rights would disproportionately be impacted in lower income and minority communities, as Massachusetts Department of Public Health data suggests those areas would likely be the targets of vaccination access programs at schools and community centers.
In addition, the bills would limit the criteria for medical exemptions to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list that defines when vaccines should definitively be skipped but was never meant to define all circumstances necessitating a medical exemption. The coalition claims that a one-size-fits-all approach is simply bad medicine as it couldn’t possibly include all of the conditions under which a medical exemption might be warranted.
Finally, these bills would allow private daycares, schools, or camps to make their own vaccination policies, including requiring additional vaccines above and beyond those mandated by the Department of Public Health or rejecting students who use a religious exemption. The group contends that the Department of Public Health, in accordance with established regulations, should be dictating vaccination policy, not individual programs.
“Individuals and families deserve the right to their own bodies and medical consent without coercion,” said Allison Chapman of Health Choice 4 Action in her testimony before the committee. “Education is the greatest equalizer and removing it is the biggest public health threat of all.”
Another bill, House Bill 2411, would end access to school, daycare or college for the roughly 1% of children using a religious exemption. According to the Department of Public Health, the religious exemption is most often used to forgo one or two vaccines in children who are otherwise vaccinated. The coalition argues that excluding these children from school creates more harm than good and disproportionately harms those from disadvantaged communities who depend on education to mitigate pre-existing educational disparities or special needs. Removing access to education creates life-long disadvantage.
Moreover, an analysis of the Department of Public Health data finds that exemptions are not driving disparities in vaccination rates. In fact, gap rates – defined as children attending school neither with the required vaccinations nor an exemption on file – are the primary contributing factor to schools falling below herd immunity. In addition to recognizing broad opposition from residents across the state, Health Choice 4 Action also cited the testimony from physicians at the public hearing.
Testifying before the committee, Dr. Sylvia Fogel, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, stated, “Although we have the highest vaccination rates in the country, there is room to optimize but removing the religious exemption or having DPH implement and approve exemptions is simply targeting the wrong thing with large potential downsides. Pockets of lower vaccination in our state are overwhelmingly driven by what DPH calls the ‘gap population.’ Of the 20 schools with the lowest measles immunization rates in our state, 18 of them have zero exemptions and in the remaining schools the gap is the overwhelming contributor to low rates. These lower vaccination pockets are not driven by the 1% of children using a religious exemption.”
Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology at UMass Medical School, testified, “As a long-time member of the American Academy of Pediatrics and Child Neurology Society, I am very pro-vaccine and recognize the importance of protecting children from vaccine-preventable diseases to the greatest extent possible. At the same time, in practicing in my specialty, I am also very aware of our incomplete knowledge about the risks of, and reactions to vaccines in some children.”
He added, “From my experience working with special needs children and their parents, I find these measures are unnecessary medically, and discriminatory against parental rights and the needs of vulnerable children.”
About Health Choice 4 Action
Health Choice 4 Action Massachusetts is a registered 501(c)(4) organization dedicated to preserving access to education, health choice and informed consent. Massachusetts prides itself on diversity and inclusion with a proven history of passing laws which support civil liberties and limit discrimination. Protecting informed consent and autonomy in medical decision making for individuals and families is crucial for Commonwealth citizens. For more information, please visit www.HealthChoice4ActionMA.org.