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The quiet war on vaccines in the Rhode Island State house



There is a quiet war going on at the Rhode Island State House over vaccines. Currently, vaccines for children are mandatory for both public and private schools. The only exceptions are for medical and religious reasons. But bills submitted by Representative Michael Morin and Senator Maryellen Goodwin would allow for exceptions to also be granted for “personal” and “philosophical” reasons.

This, as the United States is currently suffering the worst measles outbreak since the 1990s.

Before I proceed further, let me state one thing with certainty: Vaccines are safe. Vaccines save lives. Those saying that there are links between vaccines and autism are woefully misinformed or lying. Countless studies have demonstrated the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

One particularly robust study, conducted in 2015 and published here, looked at over 96,000 children. The report concludes: “In this large sample of privately insured children with older siblings, receipt of the MMR vaccine was not associated with increased risk of ASD, regardless of whether older siblings had ASD. These findings indicate no harmful association between MMR vaccine receipt and ASD even among children already at higher risk for ASD.”

Very nice, very reasonable seeming people testified in favor of personal and philosophical exceptions for vaccinations in the House Health Education and Welfare Committee on May 1. Many told stories of children and family members who are “vaccine injured.” They talk of ailments and illnesses that their loved ones (or themselves) suffered after being vaccinated.

Despite this moving and heartbreaking testimony, we know that correlation is not causation. If I eat a peanut butter sandwich then get hit by a car, no one would think that the peanut butter sandwich caused me to be hit by the car. This applies to vaccine injury as well: Though there are rare negative reactions to vaccines, it is wrong to assume that because your vaccinated child was later diagnosed with autism, that the vaccine caused the autism.

Rhode Island has won awards for our vaccination rates from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Our current policy of allowing exceptions only for medical and religious reasons, seems to be working.

There was also a smaller continent of people speaking against the bill in the House HEW Committee hearing:

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For more on what the science says and how science works, check out this piece, because science doesn’t care about politics, and science doesn’t depend on what you may believe.

The National Academy of Medicine writes, “Vaccines offer the promise of protection against a variety of infectious diseases. Despite much media attention and strong opinions from many quarters, vaccines remain one of the greatest tools in the public health arsenal. Certainly, some vaccines result in adverse effects that must be acknowledged. But the latest evidence shows that few adverse effects are caused by the vaccines reviewed in this report.”

What does this mean for Rhode Islanders? Unfortunately not much, because science does not determine policy, politicians do. Uneducated politicians, like Representative Robert Phillips (Democrat, District 51, Woonsocket), thinks that the opinion of the pediatrician who looks after the health of his children is somehow the equivalent of or even superior to the opinions of experts, doctors and medical students.

“I’m going to take all of their concerns, all of their testimony with a grain of salt,” said Phillips, referring to the experts, “because my children’s pediatrician has sent a letter to [this committee] last year and I have a copy of it again this year, that he is in support of [expanding vaccination exceptions for personal and philosophical reasons.]

“If we have medical people on both sides, which ones do you weigh different?” asked Phillips.

Science is not often the winner in public debates held before politicians. “We listen to and respect everybody’s testimony,” said House HEW Chair Joseph McNamara (Democrat, District 19, Warwick) “and very often those stories that you have, personal stories, are the stories that really hit home…”

Another bill being considered by the General Assembly this year, H5541, would allow the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) to track adult vaccination rates. Right now, Rhode Island is one of only two states without such a registry. (The other being Connecticut.)

The pictures accompanying this post are from a DOH lobby day, where medical experts and medical students reached out to legislators to better explain vaccines and their importance. I spoke to Neil Hytinen, RIDOH’s Chief Public Affairs Officer/Legislative Liaison about the adult vaccine directory.

“Everywhere we’ve seen philosophical exemptions we’ve seen higher rates of outbreak and disease spread,” said Hytinen. “Everywhere these outbreaks are happening is where there is a large group of vaccinne hesitant folks.”

As for the adult vaccine registry, Hytinen says that the legislation would expand the childhood registry to a lifetime registry. A lifetime registry “would allow us to see where there are low rates of vaccination and target those areas for increased vaccination, and respond in times of outbreak.”

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.

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