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Others’ opinion: Commendable health care coalition will push to strengthen state vaccine laws

Star Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

What will it take for Minnesota legislators to protect children from serious illness by strengthening the state’s school-aged vaccine requirements?

Lawmakers didn’t do it after a 2017 measles outbreak in Minnesota sickened 79 people, most of them unvaccinated children. Nor did they act last year, when the number of measles cases reported in the United States — nearly 1,300 — was the highest since 1992. The majority of cases occurred in those who weren’t vaccinated, a grim reality that illustrates how vaccine conspiracy theories are causing too many parents to forgo routine childhood shots.

The alarming 2019 outbreaks prompted other states to swing into action. Lawmakers in New York, Maine and Washington took the sensible step last year of removing or limiting the “personal belief” exemption that allows parents too easily to opt out of school immunization requirements. California did the same after a measles outbreak in 2014 and 2015 was linked to visiting Disneyland.

The irresponsible inaction in St. Paul leaves Minnesota one of just 15 states that allow “philosophical exemptions for those who object to immunizations because of personal, moral or other beliefs,’’ according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another way to say this: Minnesota has some of the weakest vaccine laws on the books nationally. It allows parents wide leeway to expose not just their own children, but everyone else’s, to infectious diseases.

Measles, for example, is a highly contagious disease; one infected child could easily spread it to others in a classroom, day care or playground. Infants are especially vulnerable to measles because they don’t usually get this immunization until 12 to 15 months of age.

One of the problems hindering action at the Capitol is that no large influential lobby has put its might into strengthening these laws. This year, thankfully, that has changed. Recently, the Minnesota Medical Association (MMA) announced that closing the state’s philosophical exemption is one of its “top priorities” for the 2020 Minnesota legislative session. The organization represents more than 10,000 practicing physicians, retired physicians, medical students, fellows and residents.

The MMA “believes that all children should be vaccinated, except for those who cannot be for medical reasons. Vaccines are safe and effective, and have proven to be among the most important advances in the history of medicine. High immunization rates protect the entire community against outbreaks of dangerous vaccine-preventable disease,” said Dr. Keith Stelter, the organization’s president.

The MMA’s leadership is commendable. Other respected health care organizations have joined this push. Among them: Minnesota chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, the Somali Medical Association of America and the Minnesota Council of Health Plans. The Minnesota Hospital Association said Thursday it also supports legislation to strengthen state vaccine laws.

Having the Council of Health Plans, the state health insurers’ trade group, involved is welcome. Their lobbying might is formidable and the organization also has a relatively new president and CEO, Lucas Nesse. It reflects positively on his leadership that the organization is taking such a strong public health stance.

“It shouldn’t take an epidemic to improve (vaccination) rates here in Minnesota, and that is why we are working hard to educate people about vaccines and to support legislation that encourages people to have themselves and their children vaccinated,’’ Nesse said.

This new vaccine coalition is sponsoring a rally at the State Capitol rotunda from 11 to 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday to promote vaccines’ value and encourage lawmakers to make “science-based policy decisions.” But the organizations have their work cut out for them. Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, has introduced SF 1520, a bill to remove the philosophical exemption. Medical exemptions, of course, would remain intact. Eaton’s legislation went nowhere last session and still lacks co-authors. Nor does it have companion legislation in the Minnesota House.

Having the health care organizations join forces is a strong step forward on this important public health issue. Now, lawmakers need to heed their medical expertise. There’s no good excuse for another year of inaction.