Lori Leonard will never know for sure what caused her 8-month-old baby boy to become seriously ill and spit up blood back in 1999.
The shot her little boy received was later taken off the shelf for causing blockages in the bowel. While Leonard can’t prove that caused her little boy to get sick, the experience changed how she looks at vaccinations.
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It’s why she and dozens of others — dressed in green T-shirts reading “Kansans for Vaccine Rights” — packed into a steamy committee room to implore lawmakers to allow them to get their kids out of mandatory shots for school on the grounds of personal conscience.
But some committee members seemed to agree with others who say such an exemption was a bad idea, including Overland Park mom Melissa J. Carlson who is frustrated by the trend of forgoing vaccines.
She asked lawmakers in written testimony to reject the exemption and “lead a charge for scientific research and the long-standing role of public health departments.”
She said public policy should be based on good science.
“It’s all about their inalienable rights and their liberties but when you’re talking about the right to catch and transmit a disease, I’ve got to draw the line somewhere,” Carlson said.
The proposed law would expand the current exemptions, which allow parents to opt out of mandatory immunizations if they jeopardize a child’s life or for religious reasons.
The showdown pitted parents wanting the freedom to make decisions on behalf of their children against public health advocates who contend that mandatory inoculations are vital to stemming the spread of disease.
The debate was reminiscent of one that spread the country last year when presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann linked a vaccine designed to prevent human papillomavirus, which causes some types of cancer, with causing mental retardation — a theory that was eventually refuted.
The debate Wednesday didn’t reach that far, but parents voiced the need to make decision for their family without government interference.
“Our decision of whether to vaccinate or not is not an easy one,” Leonard said. “In the end, or ultimately, we are confident that the decisions we make as parents for the safety and health of our children will be the best for our children.”
Charles Hunt, the state epidemiologist for the Kansas health department, told legislators that mandatory vaccine laws are critical to stopping the spread of disease.
“Proponents of expanding state law to allow for personal belief exemptions may argue that there is no correlation between exemptions and reported disease rates,” Hunt said. “Evidence in the scientific literature suggests otherwise.”
Hunt said there are at least 14 studies showing that so-called personal belief exemptions increase the risk of disease outbreaks. He noted that disease outbreaks in schools have tended to occur in communities where there are more vaccination exemptions.
From 2008-11, there were 65 outbreaks of “vaccine preventable” diseases in Kansas, including 25 for chicken pox that occurred in school districts with vaccination rates less than 90 percent.
By contrast, there were 14 outbreaks in districts with immunization rates between 90 percent and 94 percent and only two districts with rates higher than 95 percent.
Deborah Clements, president of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians, said immunizations have eradicated 13 diseases. Every birth generation, immunizations prevent 40,000 deaths and save $33 billion in health costs.
“I don’t want to go back to a time when I have to spend my days taking care of babies that die because they weren’t immunized,” Clements said.
Carlson fears there is a well-organized effort to expand exemptions and few realize the debate is happening.
“I think it’s getting a lot of buzz after Michele Bachmann and the Gardasil comments,” Carlson said.
The HPV vaccine Bachmann mentioned is not one of the mandatory shots in Kansas, but Carlson sees it as another way for some people to create unnecessary suspicion against vaccines. She points out that many people still believe vaccines are linked to autism despite no credible scientific research to back up the claim.
“I believe good public policy is the result of research by experts — in this case, scientists and physicians,” she said. “I reject the non-experts who appear so well organized on this issue.”
Although the state requires all students to be vaccinated before attending class, it’s up to school districts to enforce it.
Some districts monitor the requirements more closely than others. The Kansas City, Kan., School District had overlooked it for years until a strict crackdown in 2010. A whopping 2,000 out of 19,000 children were held out of class that year until they could be vaccinated or provide proof of shots.
Some children remained out of school for several weeks because pediatricians and the Wyandotte County Public Health Department were overwhelmed. At the time parents were frustrated that their children were missing precious classroom time, but few voiced a philosophical anger over the actual shots.
District Chief of Staff David A. Smith said changing the law would set back all the work being done there to immunize children and educate parents.
“There are things that as a society we do because they’re in the interest of the entire society and there are times when the collective well-being trumps our individual rights and it has to in order for our society to function well,” he said.
That reasoning was why Erik Leon, a parent and pharmacist from Topeka, condemned the current state law.
“Without a conscientious belief exemption, the state is essentially saying that those individuals harmed or killed by vaccines are necessary for the greater good,” Leon said. “I find this abhorrent and offensive.”
Yet Smith said he thinks an exemption for personal belief is so broad that it would virtually eliminate the effectiveness of the overall immunization law.
Some states are reporting large upticks in exemptions after restrictions are lifted.
In Washington, where there is an exemption for personal beliefs, the rate of exemptions has increased so substantially in recent years that the state passed a law last year requiring parents to consult with a physician before they could receive a release. The law in part makes it more difficult for parents to avoid vaccinations for pure convenience.
“It was relatively easy to get your child exempt — in many cases easier than getting them vaccinated. This evens the playing field a bit,” said Tim Church, director of communications at the Washington State Department of Health. “In the end, of course, the parents still get to make the decision.”
Kansas school officials have long worried that some families simply fib and claim religious reasons.
One parent addressed that issue Wednesday, arguing that having a “conscientious objection” exemption would give her the freedom to send her kids to public schools “without having to lie.”
Jill Craven, a parent from Goddard, told the committee that she couldn’t get a religious exemption because her faith didn’t specifically oppose immunizations.
She said her family had no choice but to home school her kids since signing the religious waiver would be a lie.
“This decision was not solely the result of the vaccination issue, however it was a big contributing factor,” she said.
It wasn’t clear Wednesday how far the immunization bill will go this session.
The committee didn’t act on it immediately. Whether it sees any action in the future will depend on the panel’s chairwoman, state Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican.
Landwehr didn’t appear to be a believer in the bill after the hearing concluded.
“I am still not sure that I’m convinced,” Landwehr said. “It’s like what I’ve said before, I still remember polio. I think there are a few people in this building that are old enough to remember other diseases that vaccines actually have helped to decrease or eliminate.”
Another committee member, Shawnee state Rep. Owen Donohoe, advocates keeping the government out of people’s lives. But on this bill, the Johnson County Republican said he was conflicted.
“This is difficult,” he said. “From everything I can see now...it’s going to be what’s for the greatest good. That’s ultimately the way we have to go with government.”
State Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, opposes the bill.
“If you listen to the proponents, they were almost all individuals who wanted an exemption for their own personal kids,” Bollier said. “The opponents were almost all medical doctors and nurses who were all talking about the community and looking at a whole population. I am very concerned about that population. That is of significance to me.”