A loosely organized movement whose members believe that routine childhood vaccinations, including those for polio and tetanus, seriously harm many children is gaining political momentum in Minnesota.
The group includes Stephanie Lee, a stay-at-home mom from Finlayson who says she believes routine childhood vaccines caused her 2-year-old daughter's death.
Dr. Karen Effrem, a former Park Nicollet pediatrician who campaigns against vaccines as a threat to children is another member.
Alternative-medicine practitioner Jerri Johnson of Eagan, a former nurse, now says she believes her former profession ignores vaccine risks.
These vaccine critics, who have sporadically lobbied Minnesota legislators to weaken school immunization requirements, suddenly are better connected at the State Capitol.
A longtime ally, Rep. Lynda Boudreau, R-Faribault, is now chairwoman of the House Health and Human Service Policy Committee. Other legislators are taking an interest, too.
Meanwhile, state health officials and doctors are becoming alarmed.
"If vaccination rates drop, these diseases will come back, and they will come back with a vengeance," said state epidemiologist Dr. Harry Hull.
But Boudreau and other sympathetic legislators are encouraged.
"I'm not convinced we need more vaccinations," said Boudreau. "Shouldn't we prove there is a risk to the public before mandating a vaccination?"
Boudreau's committee is scheduled to hear testimony this week on a Health Department plan to require two new school or day-care vaccinations: one for chickenpox and another for pneumococcal bacteria. The chickenpox vaccine is required for schoolchildren in about 35 states.
The vaccine critics say they are not trying to ban vaccines. Instead, they oppose new requirements and favor development of safer vaccines and better tracking of any reactions.
Dr. Richard Andersen, an infectious disease expert at Children's Hospitals and Clinics in the Twin Cities, sympathizes with parents who have lost a child or are raising one who is disabled. But he cautioned that parents may unfairly blame vaccines when tragedy strikes.
While vaccines are not perfect, Andersen said, the scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Public health officials point out that such major organizations as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children get the shots.
But vaccine critics "really want doctors to convey only the misinformation they believe," Andersen said.
"If I go on the Internet, I can find someone in California who claims their child's left arm fell off because of a vaccine," he said. "If that's what they want me to convey to patients, I won't do it."
Hull said any side effects and injuries already are tracked closely. He worries that critics will undermine public confidence in vaccines, and the result could be that these diseases will once again kill children.
Statistics for reaction rates vary widely depending whether they're coming from critics or public health agencies. For instance, the CDC says the side effects are usually minor, limited to fever or swelling at the injection site; critics say the reactions are more serious.
Less controversial are the death rates for vaccine-preventable diseases. They include 1 in 20 for diphtheria -- the "D" in the DTaP (for diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussus) vaccine. At the low end is 1 in 3,000 for measles, one of the "Ms" in the MMR (for measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.
Shannon Duffy Peterson of Sleepy Eye lost her 5-year-old daughter Abigale Peterson to pneumococcal pneumonia in February 2001.
Peterson said her physician didn't explain the pneumococcal shot's benefits, and she replays in her mind Abigale's last well-child check.
"I wish someone would have told me these are deadly diseases and that she needed to get the shot," she said.
Vaccines surfaced as an issue in the Legislature about five years ago, mostly in the House.
This year, Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said she expects legislation in the House and Senate to limit the Health Department's vaccination plan. Other measures that may come before the Legislature could require better notification to parents about their right to avoid vaccinations or about the risks of vaccines.
Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, who serves on Boudreau's committee, said vaccine critics have gotten more numerous and more organized.
"They have been particularly active in testifying before the Legislature and lobbying legislators," Huntley said.
In the Senate, the committee overseeing health issues traditionally hasn't been too critical of vaccinations. Now, it has several new committee members interested in the issue.
At a Health Department briefing Jan. 23 on the new vaccination rules, committee members spent two hours asking health officials often-pointed questions about the need for vaccines, their risks and how to get the public involved in vaccine decisions.
Lourey, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Family Security Policy Committee, said she welcomes the discussion.
"I want to know more about what the department is doing for families who see their children responding negatively to an immunization," she said.
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