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More Connecticut Schools Fall Below Recommended Child Vaccination Levels

Associated Press

New state data show that vaccination rates among some of the youngest schoolchildren in Connecticut fall below federally recommended levels.

The Department of Public Health Monday released school-by-school immunization data from the 2018/2019 year, which showed there were 134 schools where less than 95% percent of kindergartners got vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella.

That’s up from about 102 schools the previous year, and state officials pointed to rising rates of religious exemptions to mandatory vaccination.

“These increases in religious exemption rates have been going on for more than a decade, and it’s starting to finally really have a significant impact on our overall immunization rates,” said Dr. Matthew Cartter, state epidemiologist.

Public health officials focused on kindergarten-level vaccinations and exemptions, but the data also included rates of religious and medical exemptions at the 7th grade level, and overall rates for all grades. This was the second school-by-school vaccination data report — DPH released data on the 2017/2018 year in May.   

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that at least 95% of students need to be vaccinated for infectious diseases in order to achieve herd immunity, or a protection level that significantly reduces the risk of disease outbreak within a community.

Cartter said what’s more concerning are the 40 Connecticut schools that had kindergarten MMR vaccination rates below 90% last year.

“We would consider those schools to be definitely under-immunized and at risk for having a measles outbreak if someone were to develop measles and travel to those schools,” he said.

A majority of children in Connecticut continue to get vaccinated for most infectious diseases, data showed, but some schools last year had up to 41 percent of their total populations exempted from vaccines, mainly for religious reasons.

The overall statewide number of religious vaccine exemptions went from 2% to 2.5% between the 2017/2018 and 2018/2019 school years, which state officials called the largest single-year increase in a decade.

“This unnecessarily puts our children at risk for contracting measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases,” DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell said in a statement.

Coleman-Mitchell recommended that the state’s religious exemption be eliminated in the next legislative session in order to improve vaccination rates, a decision supported by Gov. Ned Lamont. Connecticut would join nearby states like Maine and New York, which passed laws banning non-medical exemptions earlier this year.

Lamont said in a statement Monday that parents and guardians should have access to the data to make better informed decisions on their children’s education.

But some parents who are against mandatory vaccines have said the data should remain private. Kristen and Brian Festa, of Bristol, sued DPH earlier this year over the May release of vaccination data, claiming that it violated medical privacy rights and has caused them emotional distress, according to court documents.

A Hartford Superior Court judge dismissed the case last month, but the Festas filed an appeal and attempted to temporarily block the release of Monday’s vaccination data. However, Judge Susan Cobb denied the couple's request in court.

Find out vaccination exemption rates at schools in your town, for all grades, here.

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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