Politics & Government

Vaccine opponents demand Kansas drop plan to expand required child immunizations

Vaccination opponents are mounting a show of force in Kansas, despite recent outbreaks across the country of measles – a disease easily prevented with a shot.

A state agency wants to require vaccinations against hepatitis A and meningitis for school-age children. But dozens of people – including young mothers clutching babies – protested the plan Thursday during a packed public hearing in Topeka.

Vaccines are effective. Health authorities from the World Health Organization to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourage their use.

Still, Kansas appears to rank near the bottom of states for teen vaccinations against meningitis. The CDC estimates that more than a fourth of teens between 13 and 17 years old in the state are not vaccinated against the disease.

At the hearing called by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, many voiced a variety of fears and said the vaccination requirements give the government too much power. They warned problems with vaccines are kept quiet and that skeptics are ignored.

Their speeches were met with enthusiastic applause.

“Vaccine science is tobacco science,” said Tasha Haas, a writing instructor at Kansas City Kansas Community College who spoke against the requirement.

Others stressed that parents should be able to decide whether to give their child a vaccination.

Grace Willett, who had been holding a small child before she got up to speak, invoked the Kansas Supreme Court’s recent decision that found women have the right to an abortion as part of their right to personal autonomy.

The decision means residents should have absolute freedom to make their own health care decisions, she said.

“Do you think parents should have the right to weigh those risks and make an informed choice based on what they believe is best for their children? Or that our government should have the right to step into the homes of Kansans and forcefully mandate what is best for our bodies and our families?” Willett said.

The proposal keeps in place exemptions from mandatory vaccinations for medical and religious reasons. If approved, meningitis and hepatitis A will join a list of mandatory vaccines that already includes measles, whooping cough, mumps and chickenpox.

The rule change would align Kansas with the recommendations of the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices, which guides vaccine use in the United States.

Neither Nebraska or Colorado currently require vaccines for meningitis or hepatitis A; Oklahoma requires a hepatitis A vaccine and Missouri requires a meningitis vaccine, according to an economic impact statement for the state budget office.

Meningitis is a swelling of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, according to the CDC, and can lead to seizures and coma. Hepatitis A is a disease of the liver and can cause fever, abdominal pain, vomiting, fatigue and other symptoms.

Based on applause, vaccine opponents at the hearing appeared to outnumber supporters by three to one. But a handful of health advocates and health care professionals emphasized the importance of vaccines.

Rep. John Eplee, an Atchison Republican and a physician, said he had probably given more vaccinations than anyone in the room.

“Having witnessed firsthand and held the hand of people that have died from meningitis … I guarantee you, on balance, that it is for the greater good that we are here today,” Eplee said.

Gretchen Homan, a pediatrician and the chair of the Immunize Kansas Coalition, said children need to be able to attend school without fear of becoming sick from infectious disease.

Hepatitis A is spread from contaminated food and swimming pools, she said. Meningitis is spread from respiratory droplets in the air – opening up the possibility that many people can be exposed without knowing it.

“There are things in this world that we cannot change … but the things I can protect them from, like infectious disease, I will make that choice,” Homan said.

The hearing lasted about 1.5 hours. A spokeswoman for the KDHE said it’s possible the regulation could be in effect by the start of the school year.

Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.