TOPEKA -- A fierce debate over a bill to let parents opt out of required vaccinations for their children based on personal beliefs presents lawmakers with a tough question: At what point do public health concerns outweigh parents’ right to decide what goes in their kids’ bodies?
Parents can already get exemptions from immunizations if their kids have medical conditions that make the shots risky, if they are home schooled, or if they belong to a religious group that opposes such preventive measures.
But some parents object to the inoculations based on personal beliefs and concerns over the safety of the medicine.
Major medical associations oppose giving more people ways to opt out of vaccines, citing studies that show required vaccines are safe and effective. But about 10 advocates of the bill presented the House Health and Human Services Committee compelling reasons Wednesday for why they want the freedom to object based on personal beliefs.
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Consider Julie Patry’s story.
She is a clinical social worker in Wichita who watched her little sister suffer devastating brain damage and die from reactions to two vaccines. Now she has two young sons who will face government requirements that they be vaccinated.
“I definitely worry,” Patry said. “My sister died after the second vaccine. What medical professional wouldn’t give me an exemption?”
But so far, Patry has received no assurance that her children will get a pass.
The death of Patry’s sister Laura in 1995 at age 11 still causes their mother, Carol Meyer, to cry.
Laura had a devastating reaction to a pertussis vaccine when she was 6 weeks old. She suffered severe brain damage and went on to have frequent seizures and was in and out of the hospital all of her short life. When she was 11, she received a booster for measles, mumps and rubella. Ten days later, suffering the worst seizure she’d ever had, she died.
Carol Meyer also cries when she thinks of her older daughter Julie facing a mandate to have her own children vaccinated.
“It’s hard to see her struggle with what to do with her children,” Meyer said. Her daughter is highly educated and smart and has done a lot of research into vaccinations, she said.
“She should be able to make a choice for her children, and this is what this bill is about. She’s seen the worst that can happen.”
Both Meyer and Patry said they are not against vaccines. Patry and two other siblings, including a brother born after Laura, were vaccinated without incident, though her brother was exempted from receiving the pertussis vaccine that had hurt his sister.
Patry received a vaccine for hepatitis soon after her sister died because she was in a job where she thought it was prudent to do so. She wants to be able to make those decisions for her children.
“I’m trying to take it day by day,” she said of her sons’ situation.
They are 3½ years old and 10 months old and have not been vaccinated. They go to an at-home day care, and their doctor has indicated to the day care that the children are receiving an alternative to vaccinations.
“It’s not that I’m against them,” Patry said. “I think parents should be informed.”
Medical groups opposed
It remains unclear whether the House Health and Human Services Committee will vote on the proposed bill, according to committee chair Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita. It would take a committee vote to move the bill to the House floor for a vote.
Landwehr said she still remembers polio and that many lawmakers probably remember diseases that have been curtailed by vaccines.
“I’m still not sure that I’m convinced,” she said of the bill after the hearing.
Many medical groups are convinced it’s a bad idea. Among those opposing the bill are the Kansas Hospital Association, Kansas Academy of Family Physicians, Kansas Medical Society and Kansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Charles Hunt, state epidemiologist at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said vaccinations have proven effective and safe. He said mandatory vaccinations are the best way to combat outbreaks.
He said a KDHE study found that 85 percent of kids have required vaccines within 30 days of starting school. Only 72 percent of the same children had been fully immunized for their age at age 2.
Hunt said 20 states allow exemptions based solely on parents’ personal beliefs. And he said some recent outbreaks of measles, whooping cough and chicken pox in those states trace back to areas with concentrations of unvaccinated children.
About 40 percent of Kansas school districts have children who qualified for an exemption from vaccines for medical or religious reasons. A quarter of those have exemptions rates of at least 5 percent.
Claudia Blackburn, director of the Sedgwick County Health Department, opposed the bill, saying the chance for diseases to spread and outbreaks to occur increases as more kids go unvaccinated.
She said it could also lead to more kids missing class in the event of an outbreak because, at least in the case of chicken pox, state law requires students be vaccinated within 24 hours or stay home until 21 days after the onset of the last reported illness.
Last year, a student in Sedgwick County whose parents declined a chicken pox vaccination after an outbreak missed 21 days.
This school year in Wichita, 48 children have filed medical exemptions and 71 have submitted religious exemptions. About 1 percent of Kansas kindergartners opted out of required shots for the 2010-11 school year.
“If at the point of exclusion, parents could simply philosophically disagree because it is inconvenient to take their children to get immunized, we could quickly erode the health protection gains we’ve made through vaccination requirements as thousands may choose this option,” Blackburn wrote in her testimony. “Then, as outbreaks may occur, many more children may be excluded from school for 21 days at a time like the chicken pox example.”