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Education Reporter

Vaccination Actions Threaten Parents' Rights in New Jersey and Maryland
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In December, New Jersey added four new vaccines to its already crowded vaccine schedule, and became the first state to require the flu vaccine. Under the new regulations, children attending preschool or licensed daycare centers must receive the flu shot annually. The regulations also add the pneumococcal vaccine for preschoolers, the meningitis vaccine for 6th-graders, and a booster shot for the diptheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine children already receive.

The regulations went into effect over the protests of many parents and groups such as the New Jersey Alliance for Informed Choice in Vaccination. Protestors cite the potential dangers of vaccines for some children and the encroachment of the state on parents' rights to make medical and other decisions for their own children.

This is the first time that any state has mandated a mercury-containing vaccine since the federal government adopted a policy in 1999 of encouraging mercury-free vaccines "as soon as possible." 80% of flu shots contain the mercury-based preservative thimerosal. Meningitis vaccines also often contain mercury. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deny a link between mercury exposure and autism, parents and many environmentalist groups as well as autism advocacy groups aren't so sure. New Jersey's rate of one in 94 children displaying disorders somewhere on the "autism spectrum" — compared to one in 150 nationwide — is enough to make many citizens call for extra caution.

Whether or not mercury contributes to autism, no one disagrees that the substance is toxic to humans. The Environmental Protection Agency advises that a "safe" level of mercury exposure would be 0.1 micrograms per 2.2 pounds of body weight. A 20-pound child could therefore tolerate 0.9 micrograms of mercury safely, according to the EPA. The flu shot contains 25 micrograms of mercury. Pregnant women, on the Food and Drug Administration's advice, avoid eating even small amounts of fish with high mercury content — only now to have the state of New Jersey demand that they expose their six-month-olds to a high dose of mercury if they are to spend even one day a week in daycare.

The diptheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine contains formaldehyde, also a toxic substance. Formaldehyde is also an ingredient in flu shots. "All of these shots have questionable effectiveness and safety," the New Jersey Alliance for Informed Choice in Vaccination points out. The group warns that the vaccine mandate will divert "huge sums away from other much more important public health concerns. No clinical trials have been done at all to study the collective effects of multiple new vaccines." (www.njaicv.org, 12-15-07)

New Jersey law allows exemptions from vaccines for medical or religious reasons. But some parents who have tried to claim the exemptions say the state or school system made the process as difficult as possible. "It's unfortunate to think that one size can fit all," says Andy Schlafly, general counsel to the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group that opposes the new vaccine mandates. "There are children who are susceptible to adverse effects. And it's not easy to get a doctor to sign a waiver." (The Record, 12-17-07)

Some New Jersey legislators, led by Assemblywoman Charlotte Vandervalk, have worked for years to pass a bill that would extend vaccine exemptions to parents who object for philosophical and conscientious reasons as well as for religious or medical ones. Such a law would open the way for parents with serious concerns about the safety of New Jersey's dozens of mandated vaccines to claim exemption for their children, even though those concerns might not arise directly from a tenet of the parents' religion.

'Heavy-Handed Vaccine Roundup'

Officials in Prince George's County, Maryland initiated a showdown with parents over their children's vaccination status in November. According to the school system, thousands of students missed the September 20 deadline for receiving the hepatitis B and chicken pox vaccines required for school attendance. School officials made calls, sent letters and visited students' homes to schedule vaccination appointments for students, but 2,300 students out of 131,000 still had not received the shots. Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey then began what the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons called a "heavy-handed 'vaccine roundup.'"

"We can do this the easy way or the hard way, but it's got to get done," said Ivey at a press conference. "I'm willing to move forward with legal action." In one of the most aggressive vaccination efforts by any U.S. school system, Ivey enlisted the aid of the justice system to send letters telling all parents who were "out of compliance" to attend a court hearing, where they would receive a verbal reprimand and their children would receive the vaccines.

"Unexcused absences by your child may subject you to a criminal charge," Ivey warned parents in the letter.

Only two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, mandate vaccines without religious exemptions. All other states also allow exemptions for either religious, philosophical or personal reasons. Although Maryland allows exemptions from vaccines for medical or religious reasons, few of the parents assembled at the county courthouse on the court date knew that they had a choice about their children's vaccines, according to the Christian Science Monitor (11-19-07). Instead, most believed that unless they had their children vaccinated that day they would end up in jail or have to pay heavy fines of $50 a day.

Along with the assembled parents, protestors also gathered at the courthouse to register their objections to the county's tactics. "I think it's offensive that the government would forcibly vaccinate kids," said one protestor, Virginia gynecologist Donna Hurlock. "Individual rights are a good thing, and when you're dealing with health issues, informed consent is an important value."

The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons protested the county's action, which it said "obliterates informed consent and parental rights." "Vaccines can and do save lives. . . . But this episode demonstrated that we must take a much more deliberative approach in crafting and enforcing vaccine policy without sacrificing the rights and liberties of individuals and families."

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