Kansans’ personal experiences color views in vaccination debate

RN Stacia Hobbs gives Rudy Garcia, 4, a booster shot Thursday at Redbud Pediatrics. Holding him is his mother, Megan Garcia, who also works at Redbud Pediatrics. (February 12, 2015)
RN Stacia Hobbs gives Rudy Garcia, 4, a booster shot Thursday at Redbud Pediatrics. Holding him is his mother, Megan Garcia, who also works at Redbud Pediatrics. (February 12, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

Sickness and vaccinations are words intertwined with life or death for Becky Funke and Shannon Schrag. For different reasons.

Funke has endured cancer, chemotherapy, a blood transplant and a long series of immunosuppressant therapy. She wore masks when outside. The doctors who saved her life warned her repeatedly to stay away from anybody sick and that people sick with measles or many other illnesses could kill her.

Schrag used to hear the more common warnings, given to all parents when childhood vaccinations are due. So she had all three of her girls vaccinated years ago, which is why they were able to attend public schools.

But because of one vaccination, and all the illness and ambulance rides that came after that, Schrag says she would not do that again.

Immunization used to be a non-topic.

But today even presidential candidates are taking sides.

Medical experts issued warnings about getting vaccinated earlier this month, after measles – a highly contagious disease considered eliminated in the United States in 2000 – surfaced in at least 17 states, with many of the 120 cases stemming from a December outbreak at a Disney amusement park in Anaheim, Calif.

Although the Disney outbreak likely originated from a person who caught the disease abroad and brought it to the U.S., its subsequent spread has been enhanced by people who refused or delayed vaccinations for their children or who didn’t know whether they had been vaccinated.

‘Substandard care’

A year ago, Rebecca Reddy, a Wichita pediatrician, stopped accepting patients from families opposed to vaccinations.

Sometimes they leave her care on their own, after she repeatedly asks if they could talk again about vaccinations. She’s direct about what she thinks, she said, because lives are at stake.

Not vaccinating, under any circumstances, “Is substandard care, the kind of care people would get in Somalia,” she said.

Exposing infants who are too young to vaccinate and patients and some elder caregivers with low immunity to potentially fatal – and preventable – diseases might kill them, she said.

She said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sure that vaccines do not cause autism. Any link to autism, stated by anti-vaccine advocates or anyone else, is myth, she said. When parents, as some have in the past, raise this concern with her, she hands out CDC literature that says:

“The most comprehensive scientific studies and reviews have not found a link between vaccines and autism. Groups of experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine, the National Institute of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies also agree that vaccines are not responsible for the number of children now recognized to have autism.”

She points patients to numbers published by the CDC that child vaccinations in this country between 1994 and 2013 prevented 732,000 deaths and 322 million illnesses and saved society $1.4 trillion in medical costs. She points out that polio and diphtheria used to kill or cripple thousands of Americans every year. Polio and diphtheria have been nearly eradicated – by vaccinations, she said.

Children, she said, are “the germiest people around. If something bad happened from letting them in the door,” Reddy said, “I would not want that on my conscience.”

Parents taking on a vigorous role in researching health is one thing, she said. “But I don’t feel like as a parent you can do due diligence and be Dr. Google and know more than the physician,” she said. When her office computer malfunctions, she said, she does not pretend to be a technologist; she does not Google how to fix it.

Doctors do not merely roll over and accept whatever the pharmacological companies write in their literature, she said. She and other doctors study and rely heavily on “brilliant specialists whose life work is to try to keep children’s lives at the utmost.”

Trips to the emergency room

Schrag said she never tells other parents not to vaccinate their children. “If you want to vaccinate your own children, then do it,” she said.

The anti-vaccination movement gained traction in the past year, driven in part, as Schrag said, by worries about bad reactions to vaccines, including what she said might be connections between vaccinations and autism and other problems.

These worries are not remote abstractions to her or her family, she said. In 2008 her daughter received a vaccination for HPV. What followed, Schrag said, were years of suffering and struggle. That struggle included what she and her family dubbed “chauffeur-driven trips” or ambulance runs to the emergency room at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis.

She believes the HPV vaccination made her daughter sick. And that the vaccination ensured that her daughter still struggles to achieve good health, now at age 21.

Her daughter, after receiving the Gardasil vaccinations, became ill and was diagnosed with lupus cerebral vasculitis, potentially fatal autoimmune and nervous system diseases.

Some health care specialists involved in caring for Shrag’s daughter thought it was coincidence that the girl got sick. But it wasn’t just Shannon Schrag who thought the Gardasil vaccine triggered the illness. The neurologist at the time thought it might have been the vaccine and pointed out that the symptoms started right after the vaccination.

As a parent in private life, and as a part-time employee at the nonprofit National Vaccine Information Center, which supports the informed consent of parents to oppose vaccinations, Schrag tells people – if they ask – to take responsibility, do their own research and think through what those doctors and nurses are sticking into kids with needles.

A lot of doctors get too much of the information they digest from pharmacological companies, she said.

She knows those companies and those doctors have done much to improve health. “I’m not some crazy anti-vaxxer,” she said.

Schrag has heard all the knocks on anti-vaxxers, she said. She described a few criticisms and her answers.

Immunizations saved millions of people after they became common starting in the 19th century. “But clean water also became very common here,” she said.

People opposing mandatory vaccinations should not have the right to jeopardize other children’s lives and health. That criticism stings, she said. The critics assume people are stupid and don’t care about safety and children, their own and the children of others.

Critics, she said, “did not suffer as my daughter did, did not pay thousands out of pocket, as I and my husband did. And they did not watch my child, my child, struggle to have a normal life.”

Not just kids at risk

Funke’s husband, an elementary school teacher surrounded with sniffling children at work, would come home, shower and put on fresh clothes before entering the rest of the house to help care for her when she had cancer.

In the national and increasingly politically polarized argument about mandatory vaccinations, most warnings from governments and doctors concern the danger to children – that children are going to die or come down with dangerous illnesses that they say could have been suppressed if not for the anti-vaccination movement.

But the nation is full of older people, also at risk, Funke said.

Getting measles or any other bug would have killed her, she said. “It’s not just other kids that have to worry about measles or other things,” she said.

Holding down outbreaks

One worry locally, medical officials say, is that fewer than 90 percent of children enrolled in kindergarten in Kansas have been vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC, according to studies it has done, believes that keeping that level above 90 percent nationally is key to holding down outbreaks of measles, whooping cough and other infectious diseases. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said during a Senate hearing last week that he worries about that, and supports immunizations.

Mark Sawyer, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego, recently told lawmakers in Washington that a median of 94.7 percent of U.S. students had received the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, according to the latest CDC data, for the 2013-14 school year.

A median of 95 percent had received the diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough vaccine, Sawyer said, while a median of 93.3 percent were immunized against chicken pox.

But those coverage rates vary greatly by region and from school to school. Currently 20 states allow parents to obtain vaccination exemptions for their children based on their personal beliefs.

Some possible presidential candidates have raised questions about mandatory vaccinations. Rand Paul, a Republican contender, mentioned links between vaccines and illnesses; he later clarified those remarks to say that he’d heard some parents had linked vaccines to illnesses.

Republican Chris Christie, another possible candidate, has questioned whether parents ought to have more say about immunizations.

‘It’s the law’

Kathy Hubka coordinates health services for Wichita public schools. Among other duties, she oversees the part of state law that requires child immunizations.

It’s a complicated job. There are 50,000 or so students in the schools, and the school nurses have to help keep track of required immunizations, answer concerns, assess whether to allow exemptions and sometimes warn parents to either get the shots or exemptions for their kids or face exclusion from school.

Most Wichita schoolchildren are immunized. “They work with the parents,” she said. By Veterans Day of every year, she said, they’ve got nearly everybody in compliance, with just under 2.5 percent not immunized.

By law, she said, parents can obtain exemptions from vaccinations for their children either religious or medical reasons. By Wednesday, the district had allowed 152 medical and 368 religious exemptions this year, she said.

“Being afraid of the shots” is not a valid exemption, she said.

“So if the nurse calls and asks about your immunizations, don’t ignore it,” Hubka said.

“It’s the law. Those nurses are not going to stop.”

Contributing: McClatchy Washington Bureau; Tribune wire services

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.