Advocates want to replace fear with facts as new school regulations kick in.
For the first time in a decade, Minnesota schoolchildren are required to receive additional vaccines this fall.
Seventh-graders now must get the meningococcal vaccination and an additional pertussis (whooping cough) booster. And younger children in day care and early-childhood programs must get hepatitis A and B shots.
For most parents, complying is not a problem. Vaccination rates in Minnesota top 90 percent for almost all immunizations required by law, according to the state Department of Health. Less than 2 percent of the state’s more than 70,000 kindergartners enter school unvaccinated under Minnesota’s conscientious-objection exemption, the agency says.
But two Minnesota moms worry that the small minority of parents who oppose routine childhood vaccinations often dominate public discussion about them. Karen Ernst and Ashley Shelby have joined forces to give a stronger public voice to the silent majority of parents who support vaccination. Their nonprofit website, Voices for Vaccines (www.voicesforvaccines.org), is based in the Twin Cities, but it’s attracting an international audience.
“You hear it so much, it gets a stickiness to it,” Ernst said of anti-vaccine rhetoric. “The reality of it is [that] most of us have chosen to protect our children from disease. These requirements are good.”
This year’s additions to the list of required vaccines — the first since the chickenpox vaccine became mandatory a decade ago — offer an opportunity to remind parents that vaccinating is the norm, said Ernst, a former teacher who lives in St. Paul.
Lynn Bahta, immunization clinical consultant for the state’s immunization program, said the requirements went into effect after 18 months of consultation with experts and collection of public opinion. But the vaccines are not new. Many pediatricians have been giving them to children for years. Rather, state law is catching up with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
All told, schoolchildren are now required to receive about 13 vaccines during the K-12 years, Bahta said.
“An overwhelming majority of parents support vaccinating our children,” she said. “We do have parents who are hesitant. … Parents are still trying to raise above that fear and do what’s right for their children, which is to vaccinate.”
Inaction has results
Patsy Stinchfield, a pediatric nurse practitioner and director of infection prevention and control at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics, said pro-vaccine parents, including the Voices for Vaccines organizers, are critical in an era when vaccine opponents are becoming louder and more visible via websites, blogs and social media.
“It has to be a constant drumbeat of information about the safety of vaccines and how well they work and why we do them and why vaccination is important,” Stinchfield said.
Just last week, Children’s Hospitals and Clinics saw four cases of whooping cough — ominously known as the 100-day cough, Stinchfield said.
Medical experts also point to a 2011 measles outbreak in the Twin Cities. A child whose parents delayed vaccination traveled overseas, contracted measles, came home and spread it to vulnerable children at a drop-in day care. Those children were under 1 year old — too young to be vaccinated for measles. In total, 21 people contracted the illness.
During the 1989-91 measles outbreak in the Twin Cities, three children died and more than 600 were infected, Bahta said. She said she keeps a note taped to her computer screen to remind her daily of the importance of her work: “430 children die of measles every day in the world.”
Choosing facts over fear
Ernst, a mother of three, said a close call six years ago sparked her advocacy. A day after she had taken her newborn with her to one of her older children’s classroom, she learned that a child in the class whose parents objected to vaccines had come down with chickenpox.
“This was a conscientious mother. A kind mother, a good mother who didn’t think her child needed the chickenpox vaccine,” Ernst said. “Nothing tragic happened, but it felt like a near-miss to me.”