Groups working to strengthen Ohio immunization law

First Posted: 1/31/2014

LIMA — Allen County Public Health Nursing Director Becky Dershem calls vaccines the greatest medical accomplishment of the 20th Century. But while science impresses, the other half of the equation, people getting immunized, is the key to protecting the public against devastating diseases.

Many vaccines have been so effective, today they have a dangerous effect: People don’t know the diseases they protect against, and so don’t respect them. Dershem is old enough to remember school friends who didn’t walk right because they were affected by polio.

“People don’t see these disease. What does measles do? What does polio do? What’s the outcome of chicken pox? Ask a person who’s had shingles, they’ll tell you: pain that doesn’t go away for three, four five months,” Dershem said. “We have got to understand that we have a choice between taking a proactive, preventative step in a safely, proven vaccination versus exposing our kids to a disease that you’ve never seen before. Because you’ve never seen it, doesn’t mean it won’t be catastrophic when it hits your house.”

A group of public health organizations that make up the Immunization Advocacy Network of Ohio is lobbying to strengthen Ohio’s immunization law.

Ohio does require immunization for entrance into school, but it is the only state in the country that doesn’t mandate immunization for entrance into a daycare or preschool. The law comes close, and most daycares and preschools require immunization, but it lacks teeth, said Melissa Wervey Arnold, executive director of the Ohio chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, one of the agencies in IANO.

Ohio has historically had good immunization rates, but an important category, infants, is losing ground.

“A lot of it is cultural; it’s part of our society. Everybody knows it’s your ticket to getting into school. And health-wise, it’s so important, the health system does a great job of educating people on the importance of vaccines,” Lima schools Nursing Team Leader Kate Morman said.

However, Ohio is now dropping in its rank of immunization for birth to 2 years old, Arnold said. Ohio has gone from being in the top three in the country to No. 32 for the birth to 2 year old age population.

Young children are most vulnerable, and they also are just learning how illness is spread.

“Kids have snotty noses and drippy ears, and they still hug like best friends when they see each other at daycare and preschool,” Dershem said.

Eight years ago, health officials wanted to add a new vaccine to the schedule list. While the vaccine itself was not controversial, state officials reviewed the law and determined that the statute as it was written didn’t give them authority to require it for children in daycares and preschools.

Today, the forms provided by daycares and preschools are no longer uniform, Arnold said. Also, some important immunizations — such as a vaccine against rotovirus, a highly contagious disease that causes diarrhea and other problems — are not always listed, even though it is in the CDC recommendation list.

The advocacy group is working with the Ohio Legislature and Ohio Department of Health to see if the issue can be addressed with agency rule changes or if legislation is needed. Also, the group is not seeking to change any of the waivers that exist now to opt-out of a vaccine. Some children are allergic to a certain vaccine and some parents have philosophical or religious opposition to them. The waivers would remain.

Something called “herd immunity” helps protect the public, even those who aren’t vaccinated. More people being vaccinated cuts down on the spread of disease. Vulnerable populations, such as infants and the elderly rely on the rest of the public to be healthy.

A good example of this is shown in the vaccine protecting against pertussis, or whooping cough. While the disease acts like a bad cold in adults, it can be fatal for infants. To protect babies, pregnant mothers should get the vaccine, because some immunity is passed on.

“But as soon as that cord is cut, that baby is vulnerable,” Derhsem said. “We create a circle of protection around babies.”

A child should get immunized against whooping cough at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months and then again between 15 and 18 months and again between the ages of 4 and 6. Also, anyone having regular contact with the baby, such as parents, grandparents, siblings and care providers should be immunized.

“Who can resist holding a newborn baby? But you have to protect that baby,” Dershem said. “In 2010, when we had a pertussis outbreak in Allen County, we had 300 cases. We made 3,000 contacts. Our mantra was that we were not going to have a pediatric death, and we did not. Because any time we experience the death of a child, it is tragic. But when that death is preventable, that’s real sorrow.”

Now through the spring is the perfect time to make sure a child is up to date on immunizations, Morman said. Some vaccines need to be given in intervals, and all vaccines need time to build up to fully immunize someone.

“Now is the ideal time to see what next fall will bring,” Morman said. “If you wait until August, health departments are busy, doctors are busy. Take time now to look at your shot records and see what you can get now.”

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