In testimony that was often personal and sometimes passionate, dozens of parents turned out Thursday for a hearing on a state proposal to expand the number of required vaccinations for Minnesota children.
“I understand there are risks in diseases, but there are also risks in these ‘safe’ vaccinations,” said Katherine Loeb of Plymouth, one of the first witnesses to speak at the hearing in St. Paul.
State Health Department officials say the new rules would merely bring Minnesota into line with recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and common practice by most family doctors statewide.
“My support for this one is a personal one,” said Dr. Robert M. Jacobson, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and president of Minnesota’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, adding that his entire family has been fully vaccinated.
“You can call [vaccines] cocoons, halos, double shields — they are all the protection that our patients need,” Jacobson said.
The proposal, issued by the Health Department in April, triggered the latest round in a running debate between public health officials, who say widespread vaccination is one of the most effective tools to keep the population healthy, and a well-organized community of skeptics, who say vaccines need more testing and can cause dangerous side effects.
The Health Department proposal triggered a petition drive by vaccine opponents, which led to Thursday’s hearing before an administrative law judge.
“We just know don’t know enough about these vaccinations,” said Karen Kain, who flew in from Thousand Oaks, Calif., to testify. Kain’s daughter Lorrin had an adverse reaction to a routine vaccination when she was 6 weeks old and suffered daily seizures, blindness and loss of speech. She was awarded $250,000 from the government’s National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Lorrin died in 2009 at age 15.
“I believed in vaccines,” Kain said before a hushed audience.
Others said that increasing the number of vaccines is too much too soon for infants.
“Requiring this vaccine [hepatitis B] is not reasonable,’’ said Jerri Johnson, who is active among Minnesota’s vaccine opponents. “Hepatitis B vaccine carries the risk of injury … the hepatitis B infection is exceedingly rare in Minnesota infants and preschoolers.”
Other parents endorsed the Health Department’s argument that vaccines do far more good than harm.
“I would never deny my child the protection of a vaccine,” said Ashley Selby. “I never thought I would have to advocate for a common-sense vaccine statute.”
Elizabeth Clapero, who is seven months pregnant and plans to have her newborn vaccinated, said: “I would say that this [proposal] does not go far enough.”
The proposed changes would expand immunization requirements for children in child care and grades pre-K-12 and take effect beginning in September 2014. They would:
• Require hepatitis A and B vaccination for children enrolling in child care or school-based early childhood programs.
• Replace the current seventh-grade tetanus-diphtheria requirement with a vaccine that also includes pertussis.
• Require secondary students to have meningococcal vaccination beginning in seventh grade.
The new rules do not change the state’s medical exemption or the option for parents to decline any or all vaccines for conscientious reasons.
Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman, who could block the new rule or send it back to the Health Department for changes, said he will issue a decision in August. The public will have an additional 20 days to submit comments.