Friday, June 29, 2012

Civility and the Vaccine Discussion: Found!

UPDATE: Well, unfortunately, I may have spoken too soon. The course's discussion board has been infiltrated by anti-vaccine folks and followers of Age of Autism and I'm now totally depressed because the open discussion about science and vaccinology has become dominated by dialogue reminiscent of Bigfoot hunters arguing with Loch Ness Monster proponents. Sigh.

I just started taking a free online course on vaccines taught by Paul Offit, through an outfit called Coursera. The site offers a number of free online courses on a large number of topics, all taught by some of the top academics of the world, from Princeton to Stanford to Harvard, and beyond.

The course material for Offit's course is basic, which is great for folks wanting to learn a little about the history of vaccines, how they work, how they are made, and so on (though some people may be put off by Offit's straight-talk--I, of course, am enamored). But what I've found most exhilarating is the depth and breadth--and civility--on the discussion boards. A large percentage of the students come from outside the United States, interested in understanding the efficacy of vaccines so they can pass that information along to communities within their home country. Others are vaccine-hesitant parents, as I once was, who want to know more about vaccines. And there are several parents who have described themselves as living in communities with high vaccine-exemption rates and feeling like "fish out of water."

Of course I waited to post about this until after the course had started and enrollment was closed so we don't get an influx of anti-vaxxers--we have a handful of them in the course already but even they seem muted. The point is, in this vaccines course, even when we disagree, the dialogue is civil and open-minded. The students in the course are honestly curious about vaccines, and questions have been raised about why the pertussis vaccines seems to lose effectiveness so quickly, which is not interpreted as an anti-vax comment; why chiropractors seem, as a group, to be anti-vaccine, which is an honest question not an indictment; whether directly confronting anti-vaccine parents works best or if a softer approach is better, and so on. There are no agendas. I could turn cartwheels right now. Paul Offit's Vaccines Course, where have you been all my life?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Doing Our Part

In Minnesota, the Department of Health is moving forward with its effort to bring Minnesota school immunization law into line with CDC recommendations. I know, it sounds riveting!

In reality, this move is of exceptional importance, because, like many states, our immunization rules are confusing; CDC recommendations don't have to go through the legislative equivalent of the Tough Mudder race to come into play. In Minnesota, and other states, we do.

I bring this up because an important component of any possible new or revised rule requires, by law, a series of public meetings. These are opportunities for members of the public to voice concerns or support for the propose rule. Because this is an immunization rule revision, our friends at the Department of Health are certain to hear from a well-organized cadre of anti-vaccine activists and parents. Alas, on the pro-vaccine side--which can boast the largest membership, upwards of 90% of the parenting population--we are not so well-organized because, well, we have lives that don't revolve around likening pediatricians
to Nazi doctors and trying to push for "Nurenberg-style trials" for pediatricians (Source: International Medical Veritas Association. You want crazy? You got crazy. I refuse to post their website, but give them a Google search).

This being said, because the anti-vax contingent is so vocal and over the top, they tend to make a lot of noise and, like blowfish, appear bigger than they really are. So it's become important that parents who vaccinate their children because they know it's the right thing to do for their own kids, as well as the community at large (see Karen Ernst's fantastic post at Parents Who Protect) show up at these things. If you happen to live in Minnesota, please consider attending the Minnesota Immunization Rule Revision Public Meeting which takes place Thursday, June 14th from 5:30 p.m.-8:00 p.m. at the Orville L. Freeman Building in St. Paul. Detailed information is below. I have also included information about the video/satellite meetings across the state of Minnesota on June 18th. If you live in the greater Twin Cities area or beyond, consider high-footing it to one of the locations below. 

This will provide you an opportunity to speak up, show public officials another side of this debate. In upcoming days, I will also post a sample letter you can send to the Department of Health in support of these rules. The deadline for these letters is June 30, 2012.

Minnesota Immunization Rule Revision
Public Meetings

Interested persons or groups may submit comments or information on these possible rules in writing or orally until 4:30 p.m. on June 30, 2012.
The Department will hold two public meetings on the rules.
  • Thursday, June 14, 2012
    5:30 - 8:00 p.m.
    Orville L. Freeman Building
    625 North Robert Street
    St. Paul, Minnesota 55155
    Parking in the Centennial Ramp is free after 4:30. The Green (or lowest) Level is closest to the main entrance. Map (PDF: 427KB/1 page)
    Please allow for extra time because of the construction and road closures around the Freeman Building and in St. Paul. Road closures and detours change often, see the Central Corridor Light Rail Transitsite for the latest. Attention: Non-MDH link
  • Monday, June 18, 2012
    11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
    Video conference at locations listed below
    Registration is not required but is appreciated: Click to Register
    Select "MN Imm Rule Revision Video Conf - [city of attendance]" from the drop-down Event list.
MDH - Bemidji Office
705 5th St NW, Suite A
Bemidji, MN
MDH - Marshall Office
1400 East Lyon St
Marshall, MN
Crow Wing County Social Services
204 Laurel St
Brainerd, MN
MDH - Rochester Office
18 Wood Lake Dr SE
Rochester, MN
Polk County Public Health
721 S Minnesota St
Crookston, MN
Roseau County Social Services
208 6th St SW
Roseau, MN
St. Louis County Government Service Center
320 West Second St, Room 406
Duluth, MN
MDH - St. Cloud 
Midtown Square
3333 West Division St, Suite 212
St. Cloud, MN
MDH - Fergus Falls Office
1505 Pebble Lake Rd,
Suite 300
Fergus Falls, MN
MDH - Snelling Office ParkMississippi Room
1645 Energy Park Drive
St. Paul, MN
Koochiching County
715 4th St, 3rd Floor
International Falls, MN
Kandiyohi County Human Services
2200 23rd St NE
Willmar, MN
MDH - Mankato Place
12 Civic Center Plaza,
Suite 2105
Mankato, MN

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Moms Who Vax: Lynn's Story

By Lynn Bozof

I have always been a mom who vaccinated her children. To me, it’s only natural: if you have children, you want to protect them. And vaccines save lives.

Evan Bozof
Unfortunately, my son died of a vaccine-preventable disease because I didn’t know that there was  a vaccine for meningococcal meningitis, when my son was a college junior, fourteen years ago.  Evan was a twenty-year-old junior, an honor student, and a pitcher on his college baseball team.  He was the picture of health.  Then he called one day with what he thought was a migraine, and when he was still very nauseated and sensitive to light a few hours later, I asked him to have his roommate take him to the ER.  The ER doctors told us that Evan had a “little virus,” and so he didn’t have to go back to his dorm, they would keep him overnight.

The next morning, our world fell apart.  At 7:00 AM, we were called and told that Evan had bacterial meningitis, with a five percent chance of survival.  We went from a “little virus” when we went to bed that night to a strong possibility that our son would die. 

Over twenty-six days, in three different hospitals, meningococcal disease ravaged Evan’s body.  Amputations of both arms and legs were not enough to save his life.  He lost kidney and liver function, suffered ten hours of grand mal seizures, and was eventually declared brain dead.  No parent should have to watch his or her child be disconnected from life support, flat-line, and be carried away. 

After Evan died, we found out that the military routinely vaccinated recruits for bacterial meningitis, and that the preceding year the American College Health Association had published reports about links between college students and meningitis.  The bottom line is that our son did not have to die.  There were vaccines available that could have saved his life, but we were not told about them.  Since then, I have made it my life’s mission as an original founder of the National Meningitis Association to raise awareness about meningococcal disease, its symptoms, and prevention.  I believe so strongly in vaccinations because they have saved millions of lives throughout the world.  What I wouldn’t give to go back fourteen years and have known about the meningitis vaccine.  I am confident that vaccines are safe and effective.

I am not scared of vaccines.  I am scared about what happens when parents choose not to immunize.  They may be well-intentioned, but they are wrong.  They are putting their child’s life, and those of countless others, in danger.  If you love your children, and there is no medical reason for them not to be vaccinated, then please vaccinate them.  Don’t let your child be another statistic, as my child was.

Lynn Bozof is an original founder and the President of National Meningitis Association. In addition to her work with NMA, she also spearheaded the blog Parents Who Protect and is a tireless advocate for protecting children from vaccine-preventable disease.

Editor’s Note: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following meningococcal vaccination schedule for adolescents:

                An initial vaccination at age 11-12
                A booster dose at age 16
                For those who receive the first dose at 13 through 15 years of age, a booster is
          recommended at 16 through 18

CDC suggests that adolescents receive the vaccine less than five years before starting college.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"Scare Tactics"

Recently, a mother who immunizes her children tried to post on a blog called "Modern Alternative Mama" in response to a worried mother of a newborn. The new mother had chosen not to vaccinate her baby out of fear, but was living in a community in the midst of a pertussis outbreak. Her pediatrician had called to ask if she might reconsider immunizing her baby at this point. The mother seemed worried--she didn't want to vaccinate, but clearly she didn't want her infant to contract pertussis. After reading responses from other non-vaccinating mothers--telling her to hold strong, to rest assured that breast milk would somehow make her baby immune from pertussis, one of the most devastatingly contagious diseases on the planet--this mother-who-vaccinates felt moved to post a response. 

She asked the mother of the newborn to reconsider getting her child the Dtap, and linked to Everlee's pertussis story here on this blog as an example of how an infant handles pertussis. Not only was the comment not approved by the woman who runs Modern Alternative Mama, but the mother also received an e-mail saying that the blog didn't allow commenters to use "scare tactics" and so the comment would be censored. After reading the e-mail myself, I was somewhat surprised--until I went to the blog's Facebook page and saw the anti-vax posts from the blog author. Typical stuff I encounter on a daily basis from the underbelly of the mercifully sparsely populated anti-vax world, more banal than the truly bizarre "Moms Who Vax Make Up Their Stories" conspiracy theories floating around. 

Still, I found myself stewing over this one.

In many ways, I am not surprised that we live in a world where the true story of a vaccine-preventable disease can be considered a "scare tactic." After all, we are still burdened by climate science skeptics and Creationists who believe the earth is 6,000 years old and that we hung out with our dino friends. But coming as it did in the midst of preparing a story from another mother whose life was changed by a vaccine preventable disease, I found this appellation--"scare tactic"--used to describe Everlee's story particularly distasteful, even for the anti-vax crowd. While serious side effects from vaccines are exceptionally rare, I would never look a parent, whose child had had a bad reaction to a shot, in the eye and say: your story, and your child, are a scare tactic, and therefore you do not deserve to be heard. I'm not certain how you can respond to any parent who is suffering in such a dismissive way and remain human. It doesn't necessarily mean you agree with their theories as to why their child became ill, or that you acknowledge that such reactions are common, but it means you have a basic level of compassion. 

Illness and death from vaccine-preventable disease, which are far, far more common and, unfortunately, on the rise, are not scare tactics. They are the true stories of fellow human beings who want to be heard and, even more important, who want to save other families the heartache they've suffered. More, the science is on their side. The facts are on their side. And I, as a parent, am deeply grateful for the work they do by keeping their wounds wide open in order that they might save lives, something those who criticize them have no interest in doing.