As many of you know, the New York City Department of Health, at the instigation of then-mayor Mike Bloomberg, recently approved a new requirement for “all” New York City schoolchildren under the age of six to get an influenza vaccine in order to attend public school or day care. Most articles I’ve seen on the subject contain some version of this sentence: “Parents may opt out for medical and religious reasons.”
Whew! I don’t have to give my kid the influenza vaccine! I can “opt out,” right? Wrong. That sentence is misleading at best and, at worst, amounts to a liar-liar-pants-on-fire whopper.
First off, if your child has all the other “required” vaccines, there is no exemption whatsoever for influenza vaccines unless your child has a life-threatening allergy to eggs (and even then someone will probably try and administer the vaccine with an Epipen standing by). So even though you know the flu is no big deal for the vast majority of people, there are many strains circulating at all times only three or four of which are contained in a flu vaccine, it takes on average 100 hundred vaccinations to prevent one case of the flu, there is little to no evidence that the flu vaccine is effective in small children (Dr. Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Group said in 2005, “We recorded no convincing evidence that vaccines can reduce mortality, [hospital] admissions, serious complications and community transmission of influenza. In young children below the age of 2, we could find no evidence that the vaccine was different from a placebo.” – Reaney, Patricia. “No Evidence Flu Shots Work for Under-2s: Study. Reuters, September 22, 2005.), and every vaccine carries at least a small risk of injury, you cannot choose not to get this one vaccine.
Secondly, medical exemptions are not something a parent may use to “opt out.” In practice, very few medical exemptions are obtained in the City of New York. The city gives medical professionals such a hassle about medical exemptions, requiring them to specify which vaccines are contraindicated – rather than blanket exemptions of all vaccines – and requiring them to specify a length of time for the exemption, that most physicians are reluctant to put their names on an exemption letter. As a result, parents – even those with extremely legitimate concerns, like a prior vaccine reaction – will not seek a medical exemption, because they are just not a practical way of safeguarding your child’s health.
So what’s left?
For those who have not yet vaccinated or who have decided that they are going to forego vaccination completely going forward, what’s left is a blanket religious exemption to vaccines. The exemption is usually an exemption from all vaccines, and any future vaccination can endanger the status of the exemption. (From the documentation coming from the NYC Department of Education, it seems that there have been recent exceptions made. I suspect a large number of Christians have been raising objections to the aborted fetal cell lines that are used to develop some vaccines. If that is your only religious objection to vaccination, it seems that an exemption may be approved for those vaccines and those vaccines only.) So I’ve decided I’m not comfortable vaccinating my children any longer. In that case, I can just go down to the Department of Health and file a religious exemption form, right? That’s how it works in lots of states.
Nope. Not here in New York City – the Big Apple, the city that has had two of the control freakiest mayors in recent history. If you want a religious exemption in New York State, you have to submit a letter stating your religious objection to the practice of vaccination. In most of the state that doesn’t get to be too onerous; however, the state actually leaves the administration of the religious exemption up to the school district. The school district can “deny” the religious exemption.
Wait . . . What? The school district can deny my religious exemption? On what grounds? State law holds that the vaccination requirements do not apply to “a person who holds genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to the practices herein required.” So the only ground possible for denial of a religious exemption is that your religious beliefs have been judged as not “genuine and sincere.”
Ain’t that a kick in the pants? Your local school district can grill you on your religious beliefs and “determine” whether or not they are genuine and sincere. Now if you’re anything like me, your mind will go right to the Constitution. You know, that document that’s supposed to be the “supreme law of the land.” Doesn’t that first amendment say “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” – “thus building a wall of separation between Church & State,” according to Thomas Jefferson, generally considered one of the major influences on the document.
“A wall of separation between Church & State.” How then, can any governmental body (in this case, a school district as proxy for the state of New York) be justified in questioning someone’s religious convictions and, worse, judging them?
For most school districts a very general letter stating your religious opposition to vaccination will suffice. Again, not for the City of New York. The City of New York requires a detailed and specific letter stating exactly which beliefs you hold that are inconsistent with the practice of vaccination. For many people, myself included, these letters are agonized over and end up being pages long, filled with details no government should be allowed to ask or require someone to provide. All of these letters go through one person in the Department of Education, Julia Sykes.
I defy anyone to write a letter to someone you know is going to judge the “genuineness” and “sincerity” of your beliefs and not feel somehow soiled by the process.
I wrote my first letter to Ms. Sykes in the summer of 2005 before my daughter entered first grade. After the first denial, wherein I was instructed to write a detailed letter, it took approximately a month to get the approval, just before she started school.
You would think that a religious exemption for one child would cover all your children because, really, whose religious convictions are different for one child than another? But, no. You have to file for an exemption for every child who will be attending public school. So when my son was entering pre-K in 2010, I dusted off my old letter and rewrote it a little to update it and sent it in again. One would think the approval would be much faster than last time; after all, I had a daughter who already had a religious exemption. If my religious convictions were already judged to be “genuine and sincere,” the judgment should be even faster this time, right? Who in their right minds would waste their time doing the same work over again if they didn’t have to? Well, not only was it not faster, I sent the letter in June, as soon as I knew what pre-K my son would be attending, and didn’t hear back until January of the following year. The response was an approval, but I suspect it would not have been an approval if my daughter did not already have an exemption in place.
Since that time, I have talked with a number of people who have requested religious exemptions from the NYC BOE in recent years. The process now takes longer than a year, and almost all the people I’ve talk to were eventually denied.
I had been wondering why the tremendous change in response and response time for a while already when I read something by John Gilmore of the Autism Action Network about a 1.2% upper limit on the number of religious exemptions allowed for NYC public schools. Talk about unconstitutional! How is it that anyone could put an official limit on the number of people allowed to “hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs” that contradict the practice of vaccination? While the letter that John directed me to does not establish such a quota, as written, it could be misconstrued by a principal to imply that such a quota existed, which could lead that principal to feel pressure to “crack down” on the people who have not yet received their religious exemption approvals.
As I mentioned, all NYC public school exemption requests go through Julia Sykes’s office, and that letter doesn’t apply to what happens in her office. But what is going on down there? Why does a process that took less than a month nine years ago now take more than a year? Could there possibly be that many more people requesting exemptions? And why do people with absolutely sincere religious convictions get denied? Is it possible that Mayor Bloomberg put some pressure of his own on Julia Sykes to keep the percentage of children with exemptions artificially low? Clearly, I believe that bureaucratic grilling on people’s religious beliefs is unconstitutional in and of itself, but the unconstitutionality of setting of an arbitrary bureaucratic limit to religious exemptions should be obvious to anyone.
We ran a guest blog last September detailing a mother’s difficulties in obtaining a religious exemption for her daughter. The mother is a devout Catholic who objects to the aborted fetal cells. Unfortunately, the child is also medically fragile, and her doctor wrote a letter to support a medical exemption that was used to deny a religious exemption even though the mother had not applied for a medical exemption, as if the fact that a child is medically unable to handle vaccines somehow disqualifies her from having parents with religious objections as well. Logically, that is utterly ridiculous. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. It is quite possible for people to have both medical and religious objections to vaccination. Dina Check, Mary’s mother is currently suing the City of New York in an effort to change vaccine policy.
By the way, you are also not allowed to discuss any philosophical objections you may have when applying for a religious exemption, as that somehow disqualifies your beliefs as “non-religious.” This is also utterly absurd. Personally, my philosophical convictions are closely related to my religious convictions. There is an intricate interplay between them, and it’s nearly impossible to draw a line between where one ends and the other begins.
So . . . no, “opting out” is not really an option for the vast majority of parents in New York City, which means that this new regulation is guaranteed to harm children.
You may be familiar with Mike Bloomberg’s previous fits of control-freakiness, including the bans on trans fats and extra-large sodas. Personally, I could not get upset about either of those situations. The science has come down pretty solidly on the dangers inherent in both trans fat and large amounts of sugar consumed in solution. When it comes down to it, the elimination of trans fats and extra-large sodas is not going to hurt anyone. This regulation, on the other hand, is a whole different story.
Despite the fact that the influenza vaccine is widely available in New York City and is offered free of charge at many public schools (including those of both of my children), vaccine uptake for this age range is only about 60%. That means that a lot of people do not want their children to receive this vaccine (for good reason in my opinion). This regulation is forcing those people to subject their children, regardless of health status, to a medical procedure of dubious value, and known risks. (Children with asthma are known to be at the highest risk for complications of influenza. A 2012 study found that children with asthma who had received flu shots were three times more likely to be hospitalized with the flu than children who had not received the shots). Flu vaccines are also the “most dangerous” vaccines in the U.S. going by the number of compensated (by the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, also known as “Vaccine Court”) adverse vaccine reactions for the three-month period 8/16/2013 through 11/15/2013, which included a large number of pediatric cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome and at least one death. It’s important to keep in mind these are compensated cases, meaning they have met the high burden of proof required that the vaccine caused the condition).
While there is good reason to doubt that any good will come of this regulation, there is no doubt whatsoever that there will be children who will be made seriously ill because of it, some of them permanently, and it will be due to Mike Bloomberg and the sycophants at the NYC Board of Health who approved his last desperate measure.
Way to go, Mike! Your vaccine-damage legacy is assured. You must be so proud.
Please contact the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, and request that he withdraw the new regulation.
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