HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — State lawmakers are gearing up for a marathon session as they take up a proposal repealing the religious exemptions for childhood vaccinations. Many families choose the exemption fearing their child could be harmed by the shots. But one mom told News 8 she wishes she knew about the exemption.
“I will do anything in my power to make this law not pass,” said Jacquan Johnson, of Bridgeport.
He’s referring to House Bill 6423, a proposal to protect public health by ensuring immunizations of children.
Lawmakers would essentially get rid of the religious exemption for vaccinations if the child is in the sixth grade or younger.
WATCH: CT-N live stream of Public Health Committee public hearing
Johnson has asthma, so in 2009, when 2,000 cases of H1N1 (the “swine flu”) showed up in Connecticut, he was at risk. Nine people died, all had underlying medical issues.
Alfreda Johnson, Jacquan’s mom, said her son, “did not want to get the vaccine.”
She said she was pressured after the school nurse allegedly threatened to call the Department of Children and Families. Being a devoted Christian, Alfreda prayed. She did not know about a law allowing for religious exemptions.
Jacquan got the H1N1 vaccine. A week later he developed a pain in his ear. Eventually, a cyst appeared.
“Once Jacquan got that vaccine it changed our whole life,” said Alfreda.
At age 10, Jacquan was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called Rosai-Dorfman, which is the over-production of white blood cells in the lymph nodes.
“It was a disaster, especially at a young age,” added Jacquan. “They treated me with chemotherapy. I basically lived at Yale New Haven Hospital. I was in and out for two and a half years of my life.”
But can the swine flu vaccination trigger a rare disease?
We asked Physician in Chief at Connecticut Children’s Dr. Juan Salazar. Dr. Salazar explained, “There’s absolutely no linkage that I am aware of between vaccination and Rosai-Dorfman – really extremely rare disease.”
Dr. Salazar also said childhood vaccines for polio, measles, mumps, and rubella rarely cause injury.
Of the 30,000 reported injuries to the CDC last year, 95% were for fever and redness.
Dr. Salazar said the risk is worth the reward.
“By vaccinating in any given year we can probably prevent 30 to 40,000 deaths in children.”
The state legislature is debating whether to take away the religious exemption for vaccinations of younger children. They cite data that shows the rate of childhood inoculations around the state are lower than what health officials advise.
House Bill 6423 allows grandfathering in any child in seventh grade and older to keep an existing exemption. Pre-k through sixth grade would be required to get vaccinated for childhood diseases.
Anti-vax families said that’s unfair.
Gabrielle Sellari, a mom from Shelton, said, “I think about the families who, for example, have one child who is older and might be grandfathered and then has a young child who wouldn’t follow into that category. That’s not honoring the religious beliefs of that family.”
Now 22-years-old, Jacquan Johnson uses acupuncture to get relief. He’s deaf in his left ear. His mom says Jacquan never would have gotten the swine flu vaccine if she knew about the religious exemption.
“I don’t think it should be taken away from anyone,” added Johnson.
The proposed bill, if passed, would take effect in September of 2022. Last year’s public hearing drew 5,000 people to the capitol.
The State’s Public Health Department says the number of new religious exemptions increased slightly in the 2019-20 school year, but there were fewer schools with kindergarten classes that fell below the 95% vaccination threshold for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR).
The data for the 2019-20 school year was released in advance of Tuesday’s public hearing. The results showed that of the schools with more than 30 kindergarten students, 120 had MMR vaccination rates below 95%, including 26 schools with rates below 90%.
The schools in 2019-20 with the lowest level of MMR immunizations were the Museum Academy in Bloomfield at 53%, Lincoln-Bassett School in New Haven at 55.4%, SAND School in Hartford at 60%, and The Children’s School in Stamford at 60%.
The schools with the highest percentage of religious exemptions were Housatonic Valley School in Newtown, Giant Steps CT School in Fairfield, North Stonington Christian Academy in North Stonington, the Children’s Tree Montessori School Inc. in Old Saybrook, The Speech Academy in Easton, and the Wildwood Christian School in Norwich. Those six schools each had religious exemption rates higher than 20%.
This year the virtual hearing will be capped at 24 hours.