Categorized | Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured

Will the new vaccination law stop anti-vax parents from sending their kids to school?

On a Thursday afternoon, Kimberlee Afzali’s kitchen table was piled with homeschooling guides. Her three-year old son Tuntiak ran around the living room surrounded by a sea of toys. Educating him recently became her full-time job.

This was not the plan. Azfail was going to go back to work and put Tuntiak in a day care program in the East Bronx before enrolling him in pre-K, But now, because of a new state law, Tuntiak would not be allowed to set foot through the door. This year all students in New York State, must receive mandatory immunizations to attend school and child-care centres. Tuntiak is not vaccinated.

“I care about what I put in my child’s body, that’s why I won’t vaccinate,” said Azfali. “I don’t want to risk killing my child.”

As of June 13th, New York State no longer allows religious exemptions from mandated vaccinations. In August, the Department of Health and Office of Children and Family Services also issued emergency regulations to strengthen the medical exemption process.

Previously over 26,000 students were attending New York schools with a religious or philosophical exemption. Azfali believes that the removal has forced more parents to homeschool their children.

“The homeschooling community has just blown up,” she said.

Enrolment figures from the state won’t be available until October so it is not yet clear whether fewer children are attending school because of the mandatory vaccinations.    

Azfali communicates with other parents on Facebook via homeschooling groups based in New York and anti-vax pages such as  ‘Vaccination Re-education Discussion Forum’ which currently has over 172,400 members from across the United States.

The removal of the religious exemption for vaccinations was prompted by a measles outbreak in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn. The outbreak was the largest in nearly three decades, and since it began in October 2018, 1068 cases were recorded across New York. On September 3rd Mayor de Blasio announced that the outbreak was over.

According to the state’s School Immunization Survey in 2017-18,  95.7% of Bronx students were immunized against polio, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, hepatitis B and varicella. 0.07% of students had religious exemptions and 0.02% had medical exemptions.

Herd immunity against an infectious disease such as the measles requires that approximately 92-95% of the population are immune to prevent the illness from spreading.  

Under the new law, the child’s proof of immunization must be provided within two weeks after the first day of school. 

Not only does Kimberlee Azfali not want to vaccinate her son, but she also doesn’t want him to be around other children that were recently vaccinated.

“I fear my son catching something from the children that have just started school and been vaccinated because of the shedding,” said Azfali.

Some vaccines – such as the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) – contain a live, but weakened version of the virus. Azfali and other anti-vaxxers fear that people who are recently immunized could “shed” the virus to the people around them. But studies indicate that the vaccine reproduces a significant amount less of the virus, and it’s “designed to produce immunity without causing symptoms,” according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“Parents should be more concerned about their child being unvaccinated,” said said Dr Melissa Stockwell, Medical Director of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Immunization Registry. MMR is a live vaccine but there is really no risk of shedding. Stockwell added.

Journei Bimwala, has been homeschooling her three children – the youngest two are unvaccinated – for the last decade in her Wakefield home. She runs an outdoor program called ‘Nature Classroom’ for other homeschooling families in the Bronx. She said that parents like Azfali have been given no choice regarding mandatory vaccinations.

“They’ve taken away the rights from the parents,” Bimwala said. “If something goes wrong and our children are disabled, we still have to bear the end results of it. Nobody else does.”

The fear that vaccines increase the risk of autism came from a discredited 1997 study by Andrew Wakefield, a physician turned anti-vaccine crusader. There have been a number of studies since then to disprove the link between the two.

But Dr Stockwell is most concerned about the vaccine hesitant families. “That’s the group we want to focus on to provide them with accurate information,” she said.

“They want to do right by their child but they don’t know what is right anymore because there is so much misinformation.”

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