Health department reports drop in vaccine waivers

But new legislation could threaten public health, officials say

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published February 1, 2016


SOUTHFIELD — It’s been a year since the state of Michigan enacted reforms that now require parents to meet with a health professional before they can receive a nonmedical immunization waiver for their child.

During a press conference Jan. 28 at the Oakland County Health Division’s Southfield location, Oakland County Director of Human Services George Miller was pleased to report that during that first year of the reforms, Michigan’s waiver rate dropped by nearly 40 percent — that’s about 8,000 fewer waiver requests. During 2015, 2.8 percent of Michigan children received a nonmedical immunization waiver, compared to 4.6 percent the year prior.

In Oakland County, the number of waivers requested dropped by more than half.

The news is good to Miller and the group of doctors, municipal officials and advocates who were present at the event last week. Dr. Anthony Ognjan, an infectious disease specialist in Sterling Heights, celebrated the decline in waivers because he said young people today won’t have to be subjected to diseases that were common in his generation.

“I’m what you call a baby boomer, and certainly baby boomers can attest to the benefit of vaccinations,” said Ognjan. “However, today we are seemingly victims of our own vaccination success.”

Dr. Irvin Kappy, vice chair of pediatrics at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, agreed with Ognjan and described a time years ago when his practice would perform a few spinal taps each week for children afflicted with meningitis — a disease that is considered preventable now with vaccination and the “herd immunity” that vaccinations provide.

But that success, the doctors said, could be stifled with the passage of House Bills 5126 and 5127. Introduced last December, the bills would do away with the vaccination waiver reforms, which were enacted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and return to the prior rules that allowed parents to obtain waivers from their child’s school.

The bills would also reverse health departments’ authority to keep nonimmunized students out of class for between 21 and 40 days when a contagious disease is reported at a school in as few as just a couple of students. The prior rules would apply that would only allow schools to close or restrict students in the event of a full epidemic.

Some parents reacted strongly to that particular new rule last spring when 13 nonvaccinated students in the Birmingham Public Schools district were told to stay home for more than two weeks during an outbreak of chickenpox.

Reversing the measures would be a step backward, according to Zachary Yaksich, executive director of Alana’s Foundation. It was 13 years ago that his 5-year-old daughter, Alana, passed away from complications of influenza.

“I was ignorant to the fact that influenza could take a life,” said Yaksich during the press conference.

At first, Yaksich said, his daughter’s only symptom was a fever of 99 degrees. After a night’s rest, she felt better — she joined her siblings outside to build a snowman, and had pizza and ice cream for dinner.

She woke up later that night vomiting and had a fever of 106 degrees. Her parents rushed her to the hospital, but it was too late. The virus had quickly ravaged her brain, and doctors said there was nothing they could do to save her.

“I hope and ask the governor to reject these bills,” he said.

Dr. Karen Mitchell, a family medicine doctor with St. John Providence Hospital, said Yaksich isn’t the only parent unaware of how dangerous these preventable diseases can be. And with the ample amount of misinformation available on the Internet, she said she works hard to hear parents’ concerns and help them wade through the facts and the fiction.

“I try to fight the false information with good information. I always recommend the Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention) website for good information on vaccines and their safety.”

The side effects of vaccines, she said, are one of the most common concerns for parents she’s met with seeking a waiver. She acknowledged that vaccinations can have side effects, which according to the CDC website can range from redness and swelling at the injection site, to rashes and mild fever, to more serious reactions caused by allergies.

“But some parents are concerned about the risk of the vaccine causing the illness itself or the vaccine causing autism,” she said. “I’ve been working with vaccines for a long time, and I am convinced they are safe. I also know the potential risks and side effects. The risk of autism has been thoroughly studied and disproven. While I care a lot about autism and I look for it every day, the risk of vaccines causing autism has been about as disproven as it is possible for it to be disproven.”

Whatever the reason a parent has to request a vaccination waiver for their child — which could also include religious considerations — that reason should be good enough, according to Rep. Tom Hooker, R-Byron Center. He’s sponsoring House Bills 5126 and 5127, and prepared a statement on his web page defending his motivation after the announcement was made that waiver rates had dropped.

“This legislation is not an attack on the Department of Health and Human Services. We are simply seeking to return to the DHHS policy that has existed for the last 40 years,” said Hooker in the statement.

He argued that the DHHS does not have the legal authority to pass the waiver requirements, and added that waiver rates were already on the decline before the new rules.

“Waiver rates have actually plummeted over 50 percent since 2010, before the DHHS administrative rule was implemented,” he said in the statement. “For example, waiver rates for seventh-grade students fell almost 40 percent between 2013 and 2014 without an additional education requirement from the local health authorities.”

Miller said he expects the House bills to be discussed in the Legislature soon.