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Immunization supporters gearing up to fight opt-out policy

By Mark Zdechlik

MPR News/90.1 FM

Two and a half months into the measles outbreak, immunization supporters say more people than ever are voicing concern about unvaccinated kids.

“People are fed up and they’re angry and they’re ready to push back,” said Karen Ernst, who leads The Minnesota Childhood Immunization Coalition, a pro-vaccination group.

“A lot of parents are mobilized,” she said. “I’ve heard from more parents in the last two months that I have in the last four years combined.”

Ernst hopes to build on that energy and harness it to pressure next year’s Legislature to change state law.

Other states have responded to measles outbreaks by tightening immunization requirements — most notably California. Minnesota has one of the weakest immunization laws in the country, said Diane Peterson of St. Paul-based Immunization Action Coalition, which tracks and promotes vaccination nationally.

“It’s been changing in other states, but unfortunately not in Minnesota,” she said.

Most Minnesotans who have contracted measles over the past two and a half months are Somali-American children in the Twin Cities, a group with low vaccination rates. Health officials worry about many more pockets of Minnesotans with low immunization rates, too.

Peterson said Minnesota lawmakers have faced fierce opposition from well-organized and vocal opponents of changing immunization law.

“We’ve pretty much seen that the bills are not getting hearings because the chairs of the committees know that it’s going to be controversial. It shouldn’t be,” she said.

But Twila Brase, who leads the St. Paul-based Citizens Council for Health Freedom, said there’s is plenty of controversy about mandatory immunization.

“There’s just a baseline of the individual’s right to not have certain procedures done to them,” Brase said. “Because once you start down that slope, what’s the next thing that somebody said, ‘You all have to do in order to protect me.’ It’s much bigger than measles.”