WASHINGTON — Small but increasing numbers of U.S. parents — many of them affluent — are dangerously opting out of childhood vaccinations for a host of misguided reasons, health experts told a Senate hearing Tuesday.
These include philosophical objections, misinformation and fear of vaccine side effects and ingredients. Mistrust of the rigorous childhood vaccination schedule has also created problems, along with a lack of familiarity among today’s parents with past childhood diseases and scourges.
The panel of health experts who testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions discredited these concerns one by one, saying a much-publicized 1998 article that linked the measles vaccination to autism had been found to be fraudulent, resulting in the author losing his medical license.
Witnesses also disputed concerns that multiple vaccinations could overwhelm a youngster’s immune system. They testified that vaccine ingredients must first be approved as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that no vaccine side effects pose any dangers that rise to the threat posed by not getting properly immunized.
Debunking misinformation about the safety of the measles vaccine has proved an enduring problem for health experts trying to stop the outbreak.
This year alone, there have been 121 new cases of measles in 17 states, with most stemming from a December outbreak at a Disney amusement park in Anaheim, Calif.
Although the Disney outbreak likely originated from a person who caught the disease abroad and brought it to the U.S., its subsequent spread has been fueled by people who weren’t vaccinated or who didn’t know whether they had been.
“Measles uncovers those people in areas of the U.S. that are opting out of immunization. And we have indications that some of those unvaccinated micro-communities may be getting larger,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Along with misinformation, the elimination of many childhood diseases in the U.S. has made parents and even health care providers complacent about the threat, Schuchat said.
“Because of our success, fewer and fewer doctors, nurses and parents have witnessed mysterious and sometimes life-threatening consequences of these diseases,” Schuchat told lawmakers. “Because of our success, parents may wonder if vaccines are necessary.”
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Democrats (76 percent), Republicans (65 percent) and independents (65 percent) want vaccinations to be required.
But Republicans and independents were more inclined to agree that parents should have the final say on their children’s vaccinations. In 2009, there was no party-line difference in views on vaccinations.
“This measles outbreak, like all other measles outbreaks, (is) occurring because we have too many intentionally unimmunized children in the United States, said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego.
Sawyer told lawmakers that a median of 94.7 percent of U.S. students had received the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, according to the latest CDC data, for the 2013-14 school year.
A median of 95 percent had received the diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough vaccine, Sawyer said, while a median of 93.3 percent were immunized against chicken pox.
But those coverage rates vary greatly by region and from school to school. Currently 20 states allow parents to obtain vaccination exemptions for their children based on their personal beliefs.
Nationally, the median exemption rate for students was 1.8 percent, Sawyer said. Many parents who seek these exemptions tend to live in the same communities.
“Lower vaccination coverage and high rates of exemption from school vaccine requirements cluster within communities, oftentimes in wealthier and higher educated locales,” Sawyer testified.
The exemption rate among kindergartners in affluent Williamson County, Tenn., was almost four times higher than in neighboring Davidson County, said Kelly Moore, immunization program director with the Tennessee Department of Health.
“I think that caught everybody’s attention,” Moore testified. “It’s making people realize the consequences of their choices.”
Sawyer told lawmakers that some affluent areas outside Los Angeles were found to have school immunization rates comparable to those in Sudan, an impoverished African nation.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., a physician, suggested that parents be provided with school and clinic immunization rates without having to look for them online.
“We should be letting parents know as much as possible,” Cassidy said. Sawyer agreed, adding, “We also want them to be informed about the environment” where their kids are.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., questioned the wisdom of President Barack Obama’s proposed $50 million budget cut to a CDC program that steers money to states to help fund immunizations for the uninsured.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said recently that the funding cut reflected the increase of more than 10 million Americans who now have health coverage through the Affordable Care Act. That coverage would pay for their measles vaccinations and other preventative services.
©2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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