As flu season approaches, many New Jersey parents are furious over a first-in-the-nation requirement that small children must get a flu shot in order to attend preschools and day-care centers. The decision should be the parents', not the state's, they contend.
Hundreds of parents and other activists rallied outside the New Jersey Statehouse on Thursday, decrying the policy and voicing support for a bill that would allow parents to opt out of mandatory vaccinations for their children.
"This is not an anti-vaccine rally - it's a freedom of choice rally," said one of the organizers, Louise Habakus. "This one-size-fits-all approach is really very anti-American."
New Jersey's policy was approved last December by the state's Public Health Council and is taking effect this fall. Children from 6 months to 5 years old who attend a child-care center or preschool have until Dec. 31 to receive the flu vaccine, along with a pneumococcal vaccine.
The Health Council was acting on the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has depicted children under 5 as a group particularly in need of flu shots. But no other state has made the shots mandatory for children of any age.
"Vaccines not only protect the child being vaccinated but also the general community and the most vulnerable individuals within the community," New Jersey's Health Department said in a statement. It has depicted young children as "particularly efficient" in transmitting the flu to others.
Opposition to the policy is vehement. Assemblywoman Charlotte Vandervalk, one of the speakers at the rally, said she now has 34 co-sponsors for a bill that would allow for conscientious objections to mandatory vaccinations.
"The right to informed consent is so basic," she said in an interview. "Parents have a right to decide for their own children what is injected in their bodies."
State policy now allows for medical and religious exemptions to mandatory vaccinations, but Vandervalk said requests for medical exemptions often have been turned down by local health authorities. She said 19 other states allow conscientious exemptions like those envisioned in her bill.
New Jersey's health department has come out strongly against the legislation.
"Broad exemptions to mandatory vaccination weaken the entire compliance and enforcement structure," it said.
The department also contends that New Jersey is particularly vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases - with a high population density, a mobile population and many recently arrived immigrants.
"In light of New Jersey's special traits, the highest number of children possible must receive vaccines to protect them and others," the department said.
Several hundred people attended Thursday's rally, some with signs reading, "Mommy knows best."
Among the speakers was Robin Stavola of Colts Neck, N.J., who said her daughter, Holly, died in 2000 at age 5 less than two weeks after receiving eight different vaccines, including a booster shot.
"I am not against vaccines, but I do believe there are too many," she told the crowd.
State health officials and the CDC insist the flu vaccine is safe and effective, but Vandervalk and the parent groups who support her bill contend there has been inadequate research into the vaccine's impact on small children. Critics note that flu vaccines contain trace amounts of thimerosol, a mercury-based preservative; the CDC says there's no convincing evidence these trace amounts cause harm.
More generally, many of the parents mobilizing against the state policy believe various types of vaccine are being overused, resulting in more cases of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other neurological problems in children.
"There's not been a response from the government that is credible in terms of doing the scientific research that will screen out vulnerable children," said Barbara Loe Fisher, a speaker at the rally. She is co-founder of the National Vaccine Information Center in Vienna, Va., an advocacy group skeptical of vaccination policies.
"There's an acknowledgment that prescription drugs can cause different reactions in people, but there's a blanket statement by health authorities that we all have to vaccinate, all in the same way," Fisher said.
Fisher is a prominent player in a nationwide movement challenging the scope of vaccination programs. She was harshly critical last year when school officials in Maryland's Prince George's County threatened to impose jail terms and fines on parents whose children didn't get required vaccinations.
Many of the activists in New Jersey accept the need for mandatory vaccinations for certain highly dangerous diseases, such as polio, but argue that the state went too far in requiring flu shots.
"The flu is not a deadly disease," said Barbara Majeski of Princeton, N.J., who does not want her two preschooler sons to get the vaccination.
In fact, flu kills about 36,000 Americans a year and hospitalizes about 200,000. But children make up a small fraction of the victims - 86 died last year, from babies to teens, according to federal figures. Only two flu deaths of children in New Jersey have been recorded since 2004.
"Mother Nature designed our bodies to be able to fight off infections through natural means - you need to be exposed and develop immunity," Majeski said. "We've just gotten a little too overprotective with our children."