WESTPORT — A forum hosted by state lawmakers on vaccinations grew increasingly heated Monday night, with one heckler even having to be asked to leave during the discussion.

Many in the standing-room-only crowd expressed concerns for the potential repeal of Connecticut’s religious exemption for immunizations.

The event was held by state Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, state Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, and state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, at the Westport Library. Legislators were also joined by a medical panel to discuss recent developments in connection to vaccinations.

“The best perspective for us as policymakers is to listen to the scientific community and then make the best decisions going forward,” Duff said.

As the state’s immunization rate for children has continued to decline sharply, Gov. Ned Lamont and other legislative leaders have voiced support for the repeal of Connecticut’s religious exemption. It has also been reported that more than 100 schools have fallen below the federally recommended 95 percent immunization rate.

“What we’re seeing is fewer kids being vaccinated,” Duff said. “We need to know why, and how to keep our kids safe.”

Numerous attendees protested the potential repeal, with some holding signs reading “Not broken don’t fix it.”

“As a Christian pastor I’m very sensitive to issues about government encroachment of personal liberty and religious freedoms, and then as a primary care doctor I’ve been at the bedside of patients who have died from easily preventable diseases,” said Benjamin Doolittle, the program director for Yale Internal Medicine-Pediatrics Residency Program.

Doolittle said the debate has placed him at the crossroad of his profession and religion. In 1918, the flu pandemic infected 500 million people with 50 million people dying around the world, he said.

With decades having passed since similar pandemics, Doolittle said he was worried people may not acknowledge the severity of diseases.

“These are scary diseases,” he said. “I worry we don’t realize how harsh and scary these infections are.”

Haskell echoed Doolittle’s sentiments stating younger generations may not know the fear attached to diseases like polio and measles. He added upon speaking with his grandparents, he learned of a time where the looming threat of polio gave citizens a constant paranoia.

“I feel so lucky my generation didn’t have to face that and I’m determined to make sure the next generation doesn’t have to face those fears,” Haskell said.

Leslie Miller, president of Fairfield Medical Association, said she firmly supported vaccines.

“Vaccines to me has been the unsung hero of medicines when one thinks of all the pandemics that happened in the past and are no longer happening,” Miller said, adding she has seen no vaccine injury in her practice of 25 years.

Over the years, diseases that were once no longer a threat have returned according to Miller. In 2000, high vaccination rates led to the elimination of measles. However, she said this year alone 1,241 cases of measles occurred and there has been a 30 percent increase worldwide for the disease.

“Unfortunately memory lulled,” Miller said, adding vaccination rates have dropped.

Attendees voiced their displeasure throughout the night, and constantly interrupted the speakers. Some also questioned why an opposing view to immunizations was not fairly represented on the panel.

Steinberg, who chairs the general assembly’s public health committee, noted the controversial topic will be addressed in the 2020 legislative session and that there will be several opportunities for public comment on any bill that will be proposed.

“My process is one that leads to the introduction of legislation next February. That means we have a number of months that requires as much information as possible,” Steinberg said. “I feel it’s incumbent that I speak with everyone. I don’t have (credit) if I haven’t spoken to all the parties involved.”

He added the community has an important role to play in the process, and there will be a continued dialogue for the topic.

“I would not expect you at this juncture to believe we have everything covered,” Steinberg said. “But I hope by the time we’re done next spring you will respect the fact that we’ve tried to move forward with a straightforward process that has listened to all the parties.”

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com