Matthews Proposal Would Amend Immunization Exemption

WILMINGTON – Lawmakers on Thursday announced a proposal designed to raise awareness of the risks involved with not immunizing school-aged children and to encourage families to have their children vaccinated.

The draft proposal, spearheaded by Rep. Sean Matthews, would amend the state’s religious belief exemption affidavit for the public school immunization program. Currently, Delaware requires all children attending public schools to receive vaccines for certain preventable diseases – such as polio, whooping cough, measles, mumps and rubella – while allowing parents exemptions for medical reasons or religious beliefs.

Nationally, the issue of parents opting their children out of immunizations has become a problem, as some diseases that largely had been eradicated are making an unfortunate comeback. A recent measles outbreak at Disneyland in California has led to more than 100 people in more than a dozen states becoming infected.

“What we’re seeing nationally is that a generation of people who never grew up watching friends and family suffering from polio or the measles are for whatever reason not trusting what science and 50 years of evidence shows – vaccinations work,” said Rep. Matthews, a public school teacher. “When large percentages of the population are immunized, preventable diseases are held in check and almost eliminated. But parents opting their children out have led to some of these diseases making a comeback.”

Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, about 3-4 million people got infected each year in the United States, 400 to 500 died, and 48,000 were hospitalized. To achieve “herd immunity” against measles — the condition in which so many people are vaccinated that the whole community is protected — 95 percent of a population needs to be immune. Nationally, more than 91 percent of preschoolers are vaccinated. Top states have rates of 96 percent or above, while Delaware’s rate is just below 95 percent. Delaware is above the national average for several other vaccinations, including 98.7 percent of preschoolers receiving at least three doses of the diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough vaccine.

In Delaware, the Division of Public Health reports that 0.8 percent of children are exempted because of religious beliefs, while 0.1 percent are not vaccinated due to medical reasons.

Rep. Matthews’ proposal would amend Delaware’s religious belief exemption affidavit for public school immunizations, incorporating a section that expressly inform parents or guardians of possible outcomes of not vaccinating their children. The affidavit language is spelled out in existing state code and the affidavit itself must be notarized.

The section would spell out that should an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease in an area of the state be declared, any unvaccinated child could be temporarily prohibited from attending a public or charter school to prevent the spread of the disease. In that instance, even if an unvaccinated child doesn’t show symptoms, he or she could be barred from attending school until the declaration is lifted.

“We’re fortunate in Delaware that the vast majority of kids who attend our public schools are vaccinated, but it’s important that parents fully understand the consequences of not vaccinating their children,” Rep. Matthews said. “If an outbreak like we’re seeing in other states was to happen here, unvaccinated kids could be kept out of school until the epidemic passes. We want to be sure that parents know ignorance is not an excuse if their child unfortunately catches one of these preventable diseases.”

Rep. Matthews is partnering with Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, a professor at the University of Delaware’s School of Nursing.

“Adding clear, clarifying language to the religious exemption waiver for vaccinations strikes a fair and appropriate balance between the rights of parents and public health,  ” said Sen. Hall-Long, D-Middletown, who chairs the Senate Health & Social Services Committee. “This is about educating parents about what might be necessary in the case of an outbreak and nothing more.”

Rep. Matthews is working with the state Division of Public Health on this proposal and any other updates to the immunization statute that might be needed. The draft measure is expected to be filed next month as the House returns to session.

“DPH supports informing parents of the consequences of not vaccinating their child,” said Division of Public Health Director Dr. Karyl Rattay, who is a pediatrician. “Some of the greatest gains we have seen in public health in the last hundred years have been due to vaccinations. Immunizations are vital to protecting children and the entire population against preventable illness.”