By Lindy Washburn, The Record Staff Writer
Last summer, New Jersey quietly made it easier for parents to get a religious exemption from the immunization requirements for children entering school or day care. Now a state legislator who’s also a doctor says that was a bad idea.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr., D-Burlington, has called on the state health commissioner to withdraw the rule — or he says the Legislature will.
“The problem is, now you don’t have an immunization program that will work,” Conaway said. “Either it’s important to protect the public health and alleviate human suffering or it’s not.”
A health department spokeswoman says Conaway’s measure “is currently under review by the department.”
The health department’s new rule says that authorities can’t question parents who declare their objection to a vaccine to be religious, as long as their exemption request uses the word “religious” or “religion.”
But Conaway says that’s not consistent with state law, which says parents must explain how a vaccine conflicts with their religious beliefs. Without that stricter standard, he says, parents will use the exemption for other reasons.
The dispute reflects a growing, if scientifically debatable, concern about vaccine safety among parents. Some want to decide for themselves what shots, if any, their babies and young children should receive.
New Jersey has the highest incidence of autism in the nation, and some parents fear that vaccines may contribute to its development. They don’t trust assurances that vaccines are safe.
The number of children in New Jersey getting exemptions from vaccine requirements has been growing for years, even without the official rule change. It more than doubled in the five years ending in 2009, going from 1,644 in the 2005-06 school year to 3,865 children — or 0.8 percent of the student population. The biggest spike came in 2008-09, when the state added a flu shot to its list of required vaccines for preschoolers.