Anti-vaccine activists packed a hearing Tuesday to oppose a bill designed to help health officials track unvaccinated students in case of a disease outbreak.
Two hours of testimony from parents, grandparents and anti-vax leaders— which ranged from indignant and pleading to tearful and angry — dominated public comments at the Assembly Education Committee hearing, with one man going so far as to threaten to sue lawmakers if the bill was passed, “I will sue you, I’m giving you a notice. I will sue,” he said before his mic was cut off.
Nevada law prohibits children from enrolling in public or private school unless they have been vaccinated, allowing exceptions for religious or medical reasons. During an outbreak, an unvaccinated student is not allowed to attend school during the disease’s incubation period, refusing to pull an unvaccinated child out of school during an outbreak can result in a misdemeanor for a parent or guardian.
Under the bill, AB123, when parents claim a religious or health-related exemption to vaccines, school districts would share that information with state and local public health officials.
Democratic Assemblywoman Connie Munk, the bill’s sponsor, said the lack of information exchange between health authorities and school districts makes it difficult to keep track of vulnerable unvaccinated students during outbreaks. Munk also said some schools have not been properly collecting or maintaining proper immunization records as required by law, leading to slower response times, an issue she aims to correct with her bill.
“We are reacting to these diseases when instead we should be proactive in preventing them from spreading,” said Munk.
Several public health officials spoke in support of the bill. Shannon Bennett, immunization program manager for the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health, said the department has experienced challenges with timeliness when working with schools to properly withdraw unvaccinated children from school during an outbreak. It took a week for a school in rural Nevada to confirm who had a religious or medical exemption after the department requested that information during a 2017 pertussis outbreak in rural Nevada that infected 28 people, Bennett said.
“Although the school did screen these children as quickly as possible, this was challenging to the division’s response to the disease outbreak, as the disease investigators were uncertain of the exact situation at the school,” Bennett said. “Disease can spread quickly. Timeliness is important.”
During testimony in support of the bill, Washoe County Health District community and clinical health services director, Steve Kutz, said the district was in favor of taking a proactive approach to outbreaks citing cost and adding that a recent measles case in a UNR student cost the health district $16,000 and 300 man hours.
Heidi Parker, executive director of Immunize Nevada, said the bill would not be overly burdensome as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and HIPAA already allows information sharing between schools and health officials during an outbreak and that, in Nevada, information sharing has already occurred during previous outbreaks.
“Our coalition partners have been requesting standardized required forms for a number of years,” Parker said, in support of the bill.
Opponents called the proposal burdensome, intrusive and discriminatory, and sharply questioned why the government had the right to judge their beliefs, several critics likening the bill to a “religious test.” Another said the bill was a violation of the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution.
Many in opposition expressed concern about discrimination if their children’s vaccination status was made public.
“This is literally harassment and bullying. We are in the minority,” said a mother of two who spoke in opposition to the bill. “There is no reason to point us out and make it easier for everyone to harass us.”
Opponents also made a variety of arguments about the purported harm caused by vaccines, including the claim that the majority of people diagnosed with measles have been vaccinated.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has put that claim at the top of a list of six common misconceptions about immunization, calling it “very common in anti-vaccine literature.”
WHO also has put “vaccine hesitancy” on another list: Ten threats to global health in 2019.
“Vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases,” the organization said last month.
“Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease – it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.”
Amid a measles outbreak in Washington state, lawmakers there are advancing legislation that would no longer allow families to exempt their children from vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that vaccines be given for a total of 16 diseases, but it is up to states to mandate the shots.
During the hearing Tuesday, Munk reassured opponents that “the bill does not require parents to vaccinate their children” while emphasizing that more needs to be done to prevent vaccine-preventable diseases from spreading especially among children who can not receive vaccinations because of medical or religious reasons.
“This is a discussion we must have now,” said Munks. “Even those who disagree with this bill, surely want their kids healthy and able to learn in a safe environment.”