Push to end measles religious exemptions

BY ALEJANDRA O’CONNELL-DOMENECH | Lawmakers gathered with young cancer survivors at 250 Broadway to put a face to a bill that would end nonmedical exemptions from vaccinations for schoolchildren.

“We stand here together to defend our right to have safe schools for all children,” said state Senator Brad Hoylman. He was joined by fellow state Senator David Carlucci and Assemblymember Jeremy Dinowitz.

According to the state’s public health law, children are required to be vaccinated against measles and other diseases before entering school unless their parents have “genuine and sincere religious beliefs” that are contrary to the requirement. The bill would remove that exception, mandating that all children entering New York schools be vaccinated, barring a medical reason.

From left, state Senators Brad Hoylman and David Carlucci and Assemblymember Jeremy Dinowitz stand next to King Singh, 5, who has a compromised immune system, making it dangerous for him to be exposed other kids who are unvaccinated. (Photo by Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech)

The push for the legislation comes in response to recent measles outbreaks in Brooklyn and Rockland County.

Both outbreaks occurred in predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities that have been reluctant to vaccinate their children, in part due to “anti-vaxxer” propaganda claiming the vaccines cause autism and are made from aborted fetal cells, according to The New York Times.

Since last September, there have been 535 confirmed cases of measles in New York City and 310 confirmed cases elsewhere in the state.

“It might not seem scary to you guys but it’s terrifying to us,” said Teela Wyman, speaking through an orange face mask. The 26-year-old law student has a compromised immune system after receiving treatment for stage-four lymphoma.

Before her, Toby Pannone, 15, a stage-four neuroblastoma survivor; Christopher Bidelspach, 12, a stage-four heptablastoma survivor and lifelong user of immunosuppressants; and King Singh, 5, currently in treatment for high-risk leukemia, spoke of their fears of going to schools where all students aren’t vaccinated.

Due to that fear, King’s parents have chosen to home-school him and his two older siblings.

“We don’t want to put him in an environment where he can basically die from picking up something that is preventable,” said Michael Singh, King’s father.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, for people with uncompromised immune systems, the measles is a respiratory disease that can cause fever and a rash — although serious complications, like pneumonia, brain swelling and deafness, can occur. In some cases, however, the disease can be deadly.

Those most at risk for death and complications are children under age 5, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.

During the press conference, there was a small but loud counterprotest outside the building.

“This is an attack on religion and freedom,” said Stefanie Miahiras, a Bronx mother who is against the bill. In fact, Miahiras believes the vaccine gave her measles.

But even though some charge the bill infringes on First Amendment rights, the legislators don’t believe that allows anyone to put children at risk.

With less than two weeks left in the legislative session, the lawmakers were hopeful the bill would pass both houses — and that as soon as the Legislature passed it, the governor would sign off on it. New York would be added to the list of states banning nonmedical exemptions.

California did away with a religious exemption after a measles outbreak at Disneyland infected 131 people in 2014 and 2015. As a result, the state’s vaccination rate rose from 90 percent to 95 percent. Just last week Maine also ended nonmedical vaccine exemptions.