Anti-vaccine protestors in New York last year.

In New Jersey and Nationwide, Battles Over Vaccinations Continue

Public health advocates in New Jersey experienced a setback on Monday, as the State Senate failed to vote to end a policy that allows parents to send their kids to school unvaccinated if they object to vaccination on religious grounds.

The original form of the bill, which passed the State Assembly, would have applied to children attending any private or public school in New Jersey. The modified Senate version had limited the scope to public schools, but it still failed under pressure from hundreds of anti-vaccination protestors who gathered around the Statehouse in Trenton, as well as advocates worried that the policy would violate religious liberty protections.

The debate in New Jersey comes at a time of growing national concern about declining vaccination rates in many states. In New Jersey, according to state data, the parents of nearly 14,000 students claimed religious exemptions last year. The number has been climbing. New York passed new legislation last year blocking religious exemptions to vaccination, bringing the total of states that do so to just five.

Anti-vaccination arguments remain influential in the United States, despite the clear scientific consensus that immunizations are safe, effective, and critical for public health. The results of widespread opt-outs can be grim: Last year, a measles outbreak in the New York City area infected hundreds of children. Overseas, a recent measles epidemic in Samoa, where vaccination rates had plunged, killed at least 80 people, leading the country’s government to declare a state of emergency.

New Jersey lawmakers have vowed to bring up the bill again soon. And as 2020 legislative sessions gear up across the country, lawmakers in other states will be weighing religious freedom claims against the needs of public health.

In Connecticut, lawmakers plan to propose a similar bill ending religious exemptions for vaccinations. Meanwhile, in Idaho, advocates gathered in Boise on Thursday to discuss plans to once again challenge the state’s famously lax medical exemption laws, which grant parents broad latitude to refuse lifesaving medical care for children on religious grounds. And this week in Washington state, legislators reintroduced bills that aim to amend a state law that exempts Christian Scientists, who often refuse medical care, from having to provide medical care to critically ill children.

Debates like that in New Jersey bring up thorny questions of the balance between personal liberties and the public good: When does public safety override the rights of parents? How far can the state go in compelling medical care for vulnerable kids?

“I’m not going to take away people’s rights even though I would make a different decision in the place of many of these people,” one Republican New Jersey lawmaker said during hearings last month. “It’s their right to be wrong. It’s their right to follow their own conscience.”

For others, those arguments don’t go far enough. “This bill,” the head of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics told lawmakers, “is about keeping our schools safe.”

Also in the News:

• Federal data released this week reveals that more than 100 billion doses of the opioid narcotics oxycodone and hydrocodone were shipped and sold in the United States between 2006 and 2014, a far higher number than originally known. The Drug Enforcement Administration data, made public through lawsuits, offers a stunning map of the American opioid epidemic, which killed an estimated 130,000 people during that timespan, decimating families and communities. Government records, obtained by The Washington Post and The Charlotte Gazette Mail, also show that companies strategically flooded states where drugs were most likely to be prescribed, including West Virginia (66.8 pills per resident per year) and Kentucky (63.6 pills per resident per year). The documents come amid a wave of lawsuits — nearly 2,500 towns, cities, counties, and tribal nations have brought legal action — against both drug store chains and drug manufacturers. While some settlements have been reached, already totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, the majority of the suits are still pending. (The Washington Post)

• NASA researchers announced the discovery of two new exoplanets — planets beyond our solar system — last week, including an earth-sized planet just 100 light years away that may harbor promising conditions for life. The other exoplanet, about 1,300 light years away, was discovered at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center by a high school intern, Wolf Cukier, just a few days into his summer internship last year. Dubbed TOI 1338 b, the planet is nearly seven times larger than earth and orbits two stars. It is the first of its kind to be discovered by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS. The satellite also helped scientists spot what Time called a possible “Goldilocks planet of Goldilocks planets” — a nickname for a planet inside of a zone around a star that, like the eponymous Goldilocks’ fairytale porridge, is neither too warm and not too cold. (Time)

• Cases of a new coronavirus that has sickened dozens in the Chinese city of Wuhan were confirmed this week by health officials in Japan and Thailand, marking the first time the virus has been detected beyond Chinese borders. On Monday, Thailand’s public health ministry reported they had detected the virus in a 61-year-old woman who arrived in the country from Wuhan. Three days later, Japanese health officials reported that a man in his 30s, returning from Wuhan, had been sickened by the same strain. Both patients were treated for their symptoms and are reportedly now in good health, and the virus appears to be less dangerous than SARS, a Chinese coronavirus strain that killed hundreds of people during an outbreak in 2002 and 2003. In Wuhan, neither person visited the Huanan Seafood Market that officials suspected to be the epicenter of the outbreak, although the woman said she did visit a smaller market that also sold freshly-slaughtered animals. That news suggests the virus can be transmitted from person to person, instead of only through contact with animals as was originally suspected. Many Asian governments are taking precautionary measures at airports ahead of the major travel rush coinciding with the Chinese New Year holiday, like increasing health screenings and quarantining patients with flu-like symptoms. (The New York Times)

• A 2017 rule meant to give teeth to a decade-old clinical trial transparency law has so far had little bite, reports Charles Piller in an investigative piece for Science. The rule, enacted by the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, set a $10,000 per day penalty (now more than $12,000, adjusted for inflation) for institutions that fail to post clinical trial results on the public database within a year of a trial’s completion. Piller’s investigation of more than 4,700 trials revealed that, 20 months after the punitive measures went into effect, the law was still being violated more than 55 percent of the time — and 30 trial-sponsoring institutions had yet to meet a single deadline. Meanwhile, the NIH and FDA have yet to fine or otherwise punish a single offender. The agencies’ apparent lack of urgency is troubling to some transparency advocates. “In an era when every restaurant is obliged to publish on its front door the hygiene rating in their kitchen,” Oxford physician Ben Goldacre told Science, “we’re seriously not saying whether a trial that costs millions of dollars has broken the law and its obligation to … patient participants by failing to report its results?” (Science)

• After a tragic, mysterious plane crash in Iran last week, open-source intelligence, or OSINT, may have played a key role in forcing Iranian officials to admit their role in causing it, Wired reported on Monday. OSINT is a technique that involves collecting, preserving, verifying, and analyzing evidence that is available in the public domain, such as videos and photos posted to social media. The open-source investigation site Bellingcat and the New York Times both utilized OSINT in their reporting on the crash of Ukraine Airlines flight PS752, utilizing videos and photos taken before and after the crash to challenge Iran’s assertion that it was caused by engine failure. A video surfaced online of the Boeing 737-800 appearing to be on fire as it headed towards the ground. A second video emerged showing what appears to be the moment the missile struck the airplane. By analyzing the images and sounds recorded in the second video, Bellingcat investigators were able to verify its authenticity and geolocate it to the city of Paran, near Tehran’s airport. Facing mounting evidence and scrutiny, Iranian government officials admitted that the plane had been shot down “in error.” (Wired)

• And finally: The world’s largest investment management company, BlackRock, with over $7 trillion in assets, announced on Tuesday that it is putting climate change at the center of its investment strategies. In an annual letter to CEOs, BlackRock Chairman and CEO Larry Fink said the firm will avoid investments in companies that “present a high sustainability-related risk” through activities such as coal production. BlackRock intends to press companies to share their plans for meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming. The firm will also introduce new funds that limit stocks in fossil fuels and stop actively managing portfolios of companies that generate more than 25 percent of their revenue from coal production. Critics point out that the majority of Blackrock’s assets are in passively managed index funds that won’t be subject to the policy. They also note that as recently as 2018 and 2019, Blackrock and Vanguard, another top index fund manager, rejected around 90 percent of climate-related shareholder resolutions. Still, climate activists cheered the move, one they hope will spur companies and investors to more aggressively tackle global warming. (NPR)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff and interns.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.