A few dozen members of a Kansas anti-vaccination group protested at a state hearing this summer over two new immunization requirements for school-age children.
Less than two months later, as school is about to start next week, that advocacy group has swelled to about 1,000 members, its leaders claim.
Their opposition comes as health officials try to dig Kansas up from the bottom of national rankings of teens getting vaccinated for meningitis, a disease that is often fatal if left untreated. The state fares slightly better in cases of hepatitis A, mainly because day care centers already require that vaccine. Kansas added those two diseases to its list of five others that children must be immunized against to attend public or private school.
The opposition also comes when diseases once thought to be eradicated in this country, such as measles, are reappearing as the anti-vaccination movement gains steam.
Connie Newcome, president of Kansans for Health Freedom, said the nonprofit has grown larger and louder since the June hearing held by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
“I think most people in Kansas are independent enough that they prefer to make their own family decisions without the government telling them what to do,” said Newcome, a grandmother living outside Hutchinson who says she stopped vaccinating her own children decades ago.
Kansas’ two new vaccine requirements follow recommendations of the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a significant drop in both hepatitis A and meningitis since more people received those vaccines. The CDC and World Health Organization list few side effects — mainly occasional fever or joint pain.
The state also kept in place exemptions for children with documented religious or medical concerns.
“Both of these illnesses are severe and preventable, and the safety profile of the vaccines are well-recognized, in keeping with the CDC and other scientific authority,” said Kristi Pankratz, a spokeswoman with the state health department.
Yet, opponents argue the government and pharmaceutical industry are overextending their reach. Newcome expects the group to continue adding members.
“I was extremely close to death”
Maggi Pivovar woke up one morning in 2007 with flu-like symptoms: nausea, headache and a fever.
Not thinking much of it, she went about her day, caring for her children and working as an occupational therapist. But that night, within a matter of hours, Pivovar said her symptoms started to change.
“In the middle of the night, I was hit with really profound confusion. My legs felt frozen,” said Pivovar, who was 37 at the time and living in Johnson County. “I was passing out because my blood pressure was so low. I was a medical professional, but I couldn’t recognize that I was in a medical emergency because of how confused I was. By that time, I was extremely close to death.”
She finally gained the strength to wake up her husband, and they rushed to the emergency room, where she was put into a medically induced coma.
Pivovar had contracted bacterial meningitis, which infects the thin lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Even when the disease is diagnosed early, around 8 to 15% of patients die, often within 24 to 48 hours. If untreated, meningococcal meningitis is fatal in around half of cases, the World Health Organization reports.
A few months later, doctors amputated both of Pivovar’s legs below the knees. Amputations — and other disabilities such as hearing loss, brain damage and skin grafts — are common in such patients.
“When I became sick, I was not aware that there were vaccines that could have protected me,” said Pivovar, who previously survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Young adults are so much more prone to the disease because of their behaviors in schools, sharing water bottles or being in close contact with others. I didn’t know I was in the same category because of my weakened immune system. I should have had the meningitis vaccine.”
The mother of four now dedicates her time to promoting vaccinations and dispelling misinformation. That job has grown more difficult, she said, as people opposed to vaccinations have become more vocal — in Kansas and across the country.
“I would never want a child to go through what I’ve gone through, especially if it is preventable,” Pivovar said.
Measles, for example, is largely preventable with a shot, yet growing numbers of unvaccinated people have caused cases to skyrocket. In April, the CDC reported measles cases across the country were the highest since the disease was eliminated in 2000. Last year Kansas had its worst outbreak in 25 years, with most cases concentrated in Johnson County.
Several states, including Missouri, also have reported outbreaks of hepatitis A in the past couple of years. Missouri requires vaccines against hepatitis B but not A.
KC a hot spot
It didn’t take long for the new anti-vaccination organization in Kansas to snowball, Newcome said.
The nonprofit and its Facebook page are adding new members. They say it provides a safe place to share their opinions on vaccination — many of which are controversial and debunked by medical professionals and scientific research.
Families told The Star their worries about the pharmaceutical industry’s influence on scientific studies. Many detailed their children’s illnesses and disorders, which they claim came about or grew worse due to vaccinations — despite research largely showing the contrary. And several simply said they want everyone to have freedom in their medical decisions.
Laurel Austin, a Lenexa mother, said she chose to home school her children after facing criticism from vaccine advocates. Others said they’ve applied for exemptions so their kids will not have to receive the two new vaccines.
A study last year by the Baylor College of Medicine ranked Kansas City as one of 15 urban “hot spots” for non-medical vaccine exemptions. Last year, Johnson County’s exemption rate was 2.6% on average, with the majority, 2.2%, claimed for religious reasons.
Other states, including California and New York, have tried to counter measles outbreaks by eliminating religious exemptions.
Now, with the back-to-school rush, a large part of a pediatrician’s job has become explaining the importance of vaccines and keeping unsubstantiated fears at bay, said Christine White, a physician with Johnson County Pediatrics in Mission.
“Parents who refuse meningitis (vaccines) often say their children aren’t at risk because they’re home schooled or aren’t often in group environments. And we try to discuss it only takes one sneeze or one shared drink with a kid who has it to get it,” White said. “I’ve had a few converts with that one. But meningitis scares people. People know that it can kill you.”
Charlie Hunt, a senior analyst with the Kansas Health Institute, said immunization is not only necessary for protecting children but also cancer patients and others with compromised immune systems who cannot safely receive vaccinations.
“Generally speaking, vaccines are very safe and effective. They have to go through a rigorous process of testing for safety and efficacy,” Hunt said. “Vaccinations help the community as a whole. A high percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated to suppress the disease from spreading.”
Research shows the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks, White said, especially when it comes to life-threatening diseases like meningitis.
Up-to-date on shots
Soon-to-be seventh grader Brian Andrads walked out of the packed Johnson County health clinic in Mission, clasping his right arm.
“I just got shot,” the Westridge Middle School student said, pointing to his arm. “It stings, but then it’s not so bad.”
Kansas’ new meningococcal vaccine requirement aims to improve the state’s immunization rates, Hunt said. In 2017, 72% of Kansas teenagers had been vaccinated against meningitis. That’s lower than the national average of around 85%.
“So we’re in the bottom 10 states in the country for that age group,” Hunt said. “The regulation is aimed to help protect that age group where the rates are some of the highest and where the highest risk is.”
Kansas ranks sixth from the bottom, above Wyoming at 60%, Mississippi at 63%, Alaska at 68%, and Oklahoma and Montana, both at 71%.
Missouri, which already required a meningitis vaccine, ranks slightly higher than Kansas, with 74% of teenagers vaccinated in 2017.
Kansas ranks higher for hepatitis A vaccination rates, due to a previously approved requirement in day cares. Last year, 90% of children were vaccinated against the disease.
All children who attend public or private schools in Kansas are required to comply with the new regulations, which now include seven vaccines.
“I think it’s positive. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, but every child has a right to be protected,” White said. “We believe this is best for society as a whole, and the science shows that.”
In Kansas: Under a new state regulation, students beginning seventh grade are required to receive the meningitis vaccine. Students entering 11th grade need a dose if not vaccinated prior to their 16th birthday. Students entering kindergarten or first grade need two doses of the hepatitis A vaccine. Those come in addition to these five required vaccines: five doses of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine; three doses of hepatitis B; two doses of measles, mumps and rubella; four doses of polio; the Varicella, or chicken pox.
In Missouri: One dose of the meningitis vaccine is required in eighth grade, and then a booster shot is required in 12th grade. Other required vaccines: four doses of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; three doses of polio; two doses of measles, mumps and rubella; three doses of hepatitis B; and two doses of Varicella, or chicken pox.