UPDATE (1/14/20): The bill to end religious vaccine exemptions in NJ hasn’t passed. Some legislators say it will in time, but the process will have to start over again after the State Senate failed to get the necessary votes this week. The legislation was edited last week to only include public schools, rather than public, some private and daycare centers, but was met with even more criticism.

UPDATE (12/18/19): The NJ Senate tabled the vote on Bill A3818, which would eliminate religious exemptions as an option for parents who don’t want their kids to be vaccinated. The Senate must vote on the issue by January 13 in one of two voting sessions next month. If it passes, Governor Murphy will either sign the bill into law or veto it. If the Senate doesn’t vote by the 13th, the legislative process would start all over again. If signed into law, this vaccine mandate would keep unvaccinated kids out of NJ public schools.

There have been 19 confirmed cases of measles in New Jersey this year, including a 12-case outbreak in Ocean County. Religious exemptions allowed nearly 14,000 NJ students to avoid getting a vaccine last year. Throughout the country, an alarming 1,276 cases were reported across 31 states as of December 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

In an effort to help stop the spread of the disease in New Jersey, Bill A3818, which eliminates the option for religious exemption, was passed yesterday with a 6-4 vote by The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.The bill clarifies statutory exemptions from mandatory immunizations. Now that the bill has passed, it’ll be up to Governor Phil Murphy to decide if it will be made a law. If he signs, the law will go into effect in six months. Once in effect, students who aren’t vaccinated and are therefore in violation of public school mandates will not be allowed to attend.

A Public Health Battle

While those against the bill argued their First Amendment right to religious freedom was being violated, lawmakers weren’t swayed. Some of them voiced that there are many children who can’t be vaccinated due to having compromised immune systems. Examples include students undergoing chemotherapy, or infants who are too young to be vaccinated. Families who voluntarily decide not to vaccinate their kids for personal or religious reasons are putting those who have no choice in danger, as they could expose them to life-threatening illnesses that they have no option but to be vulnerable to, lawmakers say. Most individuals affected by measles are those who’ve never been vaccinated, but the CDC suspects that some older adults born between 1957 and the mid ’60s are also at risk.

If Governor Murphy signs the bill into law, kids will need a medical exemption to attend public school without immunizations. Exemptions will need to be confirmed by a physician, advanced practice nurse or physician assistant in accordance with NJ’s Health Department conditions. If the bill becomes law, NJ will be the sixth state to eliminate religious exemptions for childhood immunizations, following California, Maine, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia.

Herb Conaway, a sponsor of the bill and a representative of the 7th Legislative District in the NJ Assembly, took to Twitter on December 9 to share a story about measles-related deaths. He retweeted the story saying, “There were over 9.8 million cases of measles resulting in 142,000 deaths worldwide last year. Most of the fatalities were children under the age of five. We must continue to pursue public health measures, including vaccination to prevent future outbreaks.”

The Opposition

Hundreds of anti-vaccine parents and children hit the Statehouse floor in Trenton to express outrage at the hearing. Some explained they’re against the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine because it’s made with embryonic tissue taken from terminated fetuses decades ago. Others argued that their immune systems are naturally strong enough to protect them without vaccines.

The measles was eradicated in the US just 19 years ago thanks to the vaccine, but it’s now back in more than ⅓ of states. This is despite the fact that two doses are about 97 percent effective in preventing infection entirely. The measles is an illness that can spread via body fluid contact or through the air when the sick person coughs or sneezes. Symptoms include a runny nose, red and/or watery eyes, a high fever, rash and cough. Measles can lead to pneumonia and brain swelling and miscarriage, premature birth or low-weight births in infected pregnant women. Kids under 5 years old, expecting mothers and immunocompromised people are most at risk—especially children who can’t be vaccinated and have compromised immune systems.

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