To Address Disparities We Must Close Loopholes to Nonmedical Exemptions for Vaccination Requirements
Jul 10, 2020

Toni Harp

Toni N. Harp

This guest post was written by Toni N. Harp, the former mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, and a former state senator.

As a child, I survived diseases that others did not. I watched as my childhood friends died or developed disabilities from viruses many have forgotten.

But I remember. I remember having measles, and the mumps, and even polio. I remember the fevers and fear, and I’m grateful for the scientific advances like vaccines that spared our children and grandchildren from the dangers these diseases posed.

My experiences with vaccine-preventable diseases as a child shaped and reinforced my support of vaccines throughout my life. As a former state senator and mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, I try to use my voice to raise awareness about the importance of vaccinations, particularly for communities of color that are less likely to receive lifesaving vaccines.

Health disparities in vaccines extend to pregnant womenAfrican Americans are less likely than their white peers to receive the flu vaccine during childhood, adulthood, and — critically — during pregnancy. Women vaccinated against flu during pregnancy are less likely to be hospitalized or die as a result of the infection, and so are their babies.

The gap in vaccination rates are part of a larger trend in health disparities. African American infants are already twice as likely to die in the first month compared to white babies, and their moms are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes. And that was before COVID-19 — a disease that now affects African Americans at a rate five times higher than their white peers.

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the great inequities in our society, and we will need to work hard to recover from the devastation unfolding. We can’t do that while also battling outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Structural and institutionalized racism, as well as challenges accessing healthcare in African American communities, are likely the primary reasons behind many of these disparities. But now anti-vaccine activists recently started targeting African American communities with dangerous disinformation about vaccines. They are piggybacking on the momentum of recent anti-racism protests by pushing out messages that inaccurately frame vaccination on the same level as past injustices and use poorly constructed studies discussing vaccines we no longer use. No doubt they will continue these tactics when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available in order to frighten people away from protecting themselves and each other.

We must not let down our guard. The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) reported vaccination coverage dropped in the U.S. in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. State and local policymakers should do what they can to protect basic public health measures like school vaccination requirements, and close loopholes like nonmedical exemptions anti-vaccine activists exploit to further threaten the health of our children.

As I wrote in a letter to the editor in the New Haven Register: “Herd immunity will be critical in a post-COVID-19 world, and the current loophole is a glaring obstacle to that goal.”

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