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Pediatricians fight anti-vaccine bill

By Carol Gentry
4/20/2009 © Health  News Florida

Saying immunizations are "vital for the health of children and adults," more than two dozen Florida pediatricians have signed a statement opposing a Senate bill that would ban the use of certain vaccines and allow parents to delay immunizations usually given to infants and toddlers. The doctors say the bill would violate federal policy that enables children in Medicaid to receive life-saving vaccines.

SB 242 would impose criminal penalties on anyone who sells or administers a vaccine to a child age 6 or younger or to pregnant women that contains more than 0.1 microgram per milliter of a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosol, whether the vaccine contained live virus or not. The doctors say flu vaccines could become unavailable to many children.

Supporters say many parents believe that childhood vaccines -- especially the flu vaccine, which still sometimes contains thimerosol -- cause autism. The belief persists in the face of several studies and conclusions by all the major health organizations that that there is no evidence to support it, as the bill analysis states.

Pediatrician Tommy Schechtman, president of a large pediatric group in Palm Beach Gardens, calls it "a very scary piece of legislation." If it passes, he says, the Legislature will be basing law on "junk science."

The bill, a committee substitute for an earlier version, passed six to one in the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee last week and is expected to go to Ways and Means on Tuesday. 

The statement signed Saturday by pediatricians across the state, released to Health News Florida on Sunday, says in part, "More children’s lives have been saved by immunizations than anything else in health care, and major successes from transplantation, cancer treatment, and HIV for adults and children have occurred because many common infectious diseases no longer occur." 

There is "no scientific basis" for the changes and they could do great harm, the statement says. They will limit Florida’s vaccine supply, causing shortages, and cause a higher mortality among both children and adults who have cancer and weak immune systems.

"We understand that all parents want what is best for their children," the statement says. "As child health experts, we would like to make sure that every Floridian understand these 4 critical points:

"1. Immunizations are safe and are not the cause of autism. The research is clear and overwhelming that immunizations do not cause autism. Numerous large well-designed, peer-reviewed studies published in respected scientific journals have shown no such link. Every major scientific, medical, and governmental organization devoted to health has endorsed the facts that immunizations are safe and are not the cause of autism. 

"This includes the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

"2. A reduction or delay in immunization can lead directly to death or permanent disability from preventable diseases. A 7-month-old baby in Minnesota died from H. flu meningitis last year; the mother was quoted as saying that she didn’t know how dangerous it could be to simply delay immunizations a few months. 

"Before the H. flu vaccine became available in the early 1990s, there were 10,000 cases of H. flu meningitis per year, mostly among 1-2 year olds, making it the leading cause of preventable mental retardation. After the vaccine was introduced this disease was virtually eliminated in U.S. children. 

"...(D)elayed vaccination has caused outbreaks in two states. Reductions in the number of children receiving vaccines for measles, pertussis, and mumps in some communities in the last several decades have led to dramatic increases in deaths and disability. Right here in Florida we’ve seen outbreaks of several vaccine-preventable diseases over the past year. 

"3. Reductions in the number of immunized children increase the risks of death and disability to the general public and particularly to Florida’s most vulnerable citizens.
Some people are at high risk from infectious diseases, but can’t get immunized themselves because they have weak immune systems. They are indirectly protected because when the rest of us are vaccinated, the diseases happen rarely (such as chicken pox). In Florida the groups of especially vulnerable citizens includes 200,000 infants, 150,000 people with cancer, 100,000 people with AIDS, and millions of senior citizens. 

"4. Unimmunized children increase health care costs, even if they are lucky enough never to suffer from one of the conditions prevented by immunizations. Unimmunized infants and young children will need additional laboratory tests, office visits, emergency room visits, and even hospitalization when they have fevers, rashes and other symptoms. 

"In addition, they can quickly spread disease to large numbers of other children waiting in doctors’ offices, playing in child care centers or at birthday parties, etc. Before vaccines, 20% of children died before the age of 5 years from infectious diseases. By putting up obstacles to vaccination in healthy children, this bill represents a reversal in public health. 

"It won’t prevent autism, but instead will likely lead to unnecessary and preventable deaths."
 
The statement was signed by more than two dozen pediatricians, many of them affiliated with University of Miami's Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine. Signers include John S. Curran, associate vice president for academic afrfairs at University of South Florida; R. Rodney Howell, chairman emeritus of pediatrics at UM; current chairman Steven E. Lipshultz; and Joseph S. Frassica, DDS, MD, chief medical officer at Holtz Children's Hospital in Miami.

Besides Schechtman, others who signed were Carolyn Abitbol, MD; Ofelia Alvarez, MD; Danny Armstrong, PhD; Eduardo Bancarari, MD; Julio Barredo, MD; Jeff Brosco, MD, PhD; Patricia Cantwell, MD;  Teresa Del Moral, MD;  John Goldberg, MD; Eugene Hershorin, MD, Jason Jent, PhD; Michael Kapiloff, MD, PhD; Gary Kleiner, MD; Walter Lambert, MD;  Charles Mitchell, MD; Mobeen Rathore, MD; Paolo Rusconi, MD; Lee Sanders, MD, PhD; Wacharee Seeherunvong, MD; Judy Schaechter, MD; Klaas J. Wierenga, MD; and Edward Zissman, MD.