Parents say choice is far from simple
By Jeff Simms
A measure signed into law in June by Gov. Andrew Cuomo invalidated some 26,000 religious exemptions from vaccination requirements for students across New York state, including about 75 in the Highlands.
With school starting this week, the parents of those children faced tough decisions about whether to vaccinate. For a few, the issue is so thorny that they will home-school or send their children to private schools in other states.
The law, which applies to public and private schools, preschools and day care centers, was introduced after an outbreak of measles, a disease the U.S. had declared eradicated in 2000. Two of the three ongoing outbreaks are in New York state, in Rockland and Wyoming counties, although on Sept. 3 federal health officials said an outbreak in New York City had ended.
Parents who cited religious beliefs as the reason for not vaccinating their children (unlike other states, New York does not recognize philosophical or personal opposition) and want them to continue to attend school have until the third week of September to begin the immunization process.
“The science is crystal clear: Vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to keep our children safe,” Cuomo said in a statement after signing the law. “While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health.” The new law will “help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks.”
Before going to Cuomo, the ban passed the state Senate, 36-26 (Sue Serino, a Republican whose district includes the Highlands, voted no) and the Assembly, 84-61, where Democrats Sandy Galef, whose district includes Philipstown, and Jonathan Jacobson, whose district includes Beacon, voted for the measure.
In Dutchess County, 555 students (of 44,137) lost the exemption; in Putnam, 180 of 14,595 were affected, according to state figures.
On Aug. 26, a state judge ruled against a group of parents who had sued to keep the law from going into effect.
State health officials say they will increase audits of schools (there are 4,000 outside New York City) and those who are not complying with the law will face fines of $2,000 per student who is improperly enrolled.
Elie Ward, the director of policy and advocacy for the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said New York’s immunization requirements are not unusual and reflect standards created by a federal advisory committee. The state requires students through grade 12 to be vaccinated against diphtheria, hepatitis B, measles, mumps, pertussis, polio, tetanus and varicella (chickenpox).
“What New York State is asking families to do is the national standard — nothing more, nothing less,” she said. “We support it 110 percent.”
Many local parents contacted private schools, believing they would not be affected by the law but learning otherwise.
At the Manitou School in Philipstown, director Maria Stein-Marrison said most of its families with religious exemptions decided to vaccinate but that the school lost a number of prospective students whose families instead enrolled their children in private schools in New Jersey. At Hudson Hills Academy in Beacon, director Asma Siddiqui said the students who had religious exemptions are being home-schooled.
In 2017-18 (the most recent data available), about 95 percent of students in New York state were completely immunized, according to the state health department. In the Highlands, the figures ranged from about 90 percent at two private schools to 98.7 at Glenham Elementary in the Beacon district.
Based on reports for schools in Beacon, about seven students at the high school received religious exemptions in 2017-18, six at Rombout Middle School, one at Glenham, two at Sargent Elementary, five at Forrestal, 10 at South Avenue, and two at Hudson Hills Academy.
In Philipstown, about 13 students received religious exemptions at the Garrison School, six at Manitou, 10 at Haldane Elementary and 13 at Haldane middle and high schools.
At public schools in the Highlands, most families that had religious exemptions chose to have their children immunized, according to local superintendents. Although one family left the Garrison School, every family at Haldane promised to begin immunizations.
The majority of families with religious exemptions in the Beacon district also decided to vaccinate, Superintendent Matt Landahl said on Wednesday, the day before classes began. He said that district officials met with each family after the law was enacted, although they had no options to offer.
“We’ll find out during the first couple of weeks how it all plays out,” he said. “People can also go the medical-exemption route, but there’s no wiggle room. It was a difficult summer.”
The Current identified and spoke with two Beacon parents who did not enroll their children and one who decided to immunize.
The first, who asked not to be identified for fear of being scorned as an “anti-vaxxer,” has two children, ages 10 and 11, who she said both have auto-immune disorders. Each received a vitamin K injection at birth but have not been immunized because she (the woman) and her former sister-in-law both had adverse reactions to vaccinations as children, and because she said her pediatrician advised against it.
Her oldest child was home-schooled from 2012 until mid-2015 before being enrolled in the Beacon district with a religious exemption. The youngest has been in Beacon schools since pre-kindergarten, also with an exemption.
“My kids should qualify for medical exemptions,” their mother said. “But their pediatrician said not to even try, that they would not pass. But [the doctor] also said he felt that immunizations would cause them harm.”
To obtain a medical exemption, a parent or guardian must provide a school with certification from a physician that an immunization would be detrimental to the child’s health, such as when the child had a severe allergic reaction to a previous vaccination.
Her children’s immune systems are so fragile, the mother said, she cannot use nail polish remover in the home or let them swim in chlorinated pools. They’re also highly allergic to soy and a number of other foods. The oldest is autistic, as well, she said.
However, the woman said the religious exemption was not a work-around for a medical one but was based on her Christian upbringing. “We lived very naturally, and my kids have brought me back to that,” she said. “Polluting our body causes it not to function as it was perfectly created. I’ve made promises to my kids to deliver them into adulthood as stable and as healthy as possible. I’m not going to take any chances with them.”
Both children will be home-schooled, and “they’re worried about losing their friends,” she said. “We’ve had mothers calling us sobbing and asking if they should stage a walkout. We are already tightly budgeted. I don’t have a supportive ex-husband and no family in this area.
“We feel isolated and demonized. We’re in a bad position, and this is making it worse.”
Another Beacon mother, Jenn Gibbons, an acupuncturist and herbalist, said she believes there are flaws in the logic behind blanket vaccinations. “If I’m somebody who is all about quality and enabling natural functions and I have a strong, robust body and can recover from most things — obviously there are some exceptions — that we vaccinate for, it’s just irrational” to vaccinate and risk ill effects, she said.
Gibbons and her husband, who is also a health practitioner, have two children, 8 and 11, who were enrolled in the Beacon district. Both will be home-schooled, she said.
“This is more of a control issue than a medical necessity,” she said. “If the goal is public health, then our focus should be on living a healthier lifestyle: breathing clean air, drinking pure water, eating real food. A vaccine isn’t going to keep people healthy and protect the public.”
The Effect of Vaccines
At the time many vaccines were developed in the middle of the last century, whooping cough, polio, measles, flu, rubella and other communicable diseases afflicted hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S., and killed thousands.
Nearly everyone got measles, although “today, most doctors have never seen a case,” notes the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 15,000 Americans died from diphtheria in 1921 but only two cases have been reported since 2004. An epidemic of rubella (German measles) in 1964 and 1965 infected 12.5 million Americans, including 2,000 babies, and caused 11,000 miscarriages. Since 2012, 37 cases of rubella have been reported to CDC.
1950: 5,796 cases (410 deaths)
2017: 0 (0)
1950: 120,718 (1,118)
2017: 18,975 (0)
1950: 33,300 (1,904)
2017: 0 (0)
1950: 319,124 (468)
2017: 120 (0)
A third Beacon mother opted to have her children, ages 6 and 12, immunized but says she struggled mightily with the decision.
She said doctors recommended not vaccinating her youngest child, who is in a special-education program, because of the possibility of harmful reactions, including seizures. But she said that wasn’t enough for a medical exemption.
“This law looks at the issue with one lens that doesn’t fit every kid or every family,” she said. “It takes away the ability for parents to choose in this very gray area.”
She decided to have her youngest vaccinated, she said, because home-schooling is not feasible. “We could never possibly provide or coordinate the level of services that [the child] receives in the special-education program,” she said. “It’s a difficult situation that we’re in for the well-being of our kid.”
The woman said she gave her older child the choice of whether to be vaccinated and stay in the Beacon schools. As she proceeds with vaccines for the younger child, the mother said the family’s pediatrician recommended using homeopathic and detoxing remedies to help the child recover after shots.
It’s been almost as troubling, she said, hearing so many negative comments, online and in person, as it was wrestling with the decision to immunize her children. Each of the other women expressed similar feelings.
What’s upsetting “is this idea that my children are a lightning rod for potential disease,” the third mother said. “People talk about people who don’t vaccinate like they’re stupid and uninformed, that we’re putting other people in the community in danger.
“Everybody that I know who’s chosen not to vaccinate has taken the arguments very seriously and made the decision that’s best for their family. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t thought about it.”