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Proposed meningococcal vaccine requirement for Wisconsin students faces pushback

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A proposed requirement for Wisconsin school children to be vaccinated for meningococcal disease faced pushback from critics who claim the vaccine is unnecessary and doesn’t work.

Dozens turned out Friday to a public hearing about a set of changes the state Department of Health Services is proposing on vaccination policies for children who attend a Wisconsin school or child care center. The majority of the opposition focused on a new requirement to have students receive the meningococcal vaccination before entering seventh grade.

Parental choice advocates and those concerned about the vaccine’s effectiveness squared off with those who say the mandatory vaccine would prevent the rare but potentially deadly disease and align the state with Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

“We’re not even trying to change anybody’s mind about vaccination, we’re just trying to reserve the right to make the choices for ourselves and for our children,” said Amber Psket, co-founder of the Wisconsin United for Freedom organization, which advocates for vaccine exemptions, among other issues.

Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria and can result in meningitis — an inflammation that affects the brain and spinal cord — and septicemia, which is an infection of the bloodstream that can cause bleeding into skin and organs, according to the CDC.

It is spread through oral and nasal secretion, and those most likely at risk are people living in close quarters with others and those in relationships.

Donna Knutter, of Pleasant Prairie, spoke in support of the proposed requirement, telling the story of how her 17-year-old son died in 2007 from meningitis.

She said her son died within 15 hours of the first symptoms, preventing her other child from getting home in time to say goodbye.

“This vaccine would have saved his life,” Knutter said. “I do not want another family to go through what we have gone through.”

The Department of Health Services is proposing Wisconsin children be required to receive the vaccine before entering seventh grade and then another booster shot before entering 12th grade. If the new rule is adopted, the requirements would take effect in the 2021-22 school year.

Stephanie Schauer, immunization program manager for DHS, said the meningococcal vaccination has been among a set of recommended vaccines for adolescents since 2005, and the department believes it is time to pursue the requirement.

All states surrounding Wisconsin — Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota — require either sixth- or seventh-graders to receive the meningococcal vaccination, according to DHS. With the exception of Michigan, the three other states also require a booster shot sometime between ages 16 to 18.

The vaccination is designed to prevent infection from the serogroups A, C, W and Y of meningococcal disease. A separate vaccination, which would not be required, is available for the serogroup B of the disease.

In 2016, three UW-Madison students became ill with meningitis B.

Public comment on the proposed changes closed Friday. The recommendations will now go to Gov. Tony Evers and two legislative bodies for review, Schauer said.

There were 353 cases of meningococcal disease reported in the United States in 2017, according to the CDC. Four of the cases were in Wisconsin, with one being in the known serogroups the vaccine is designed to prevent.

In Wisconsin, parents are allowed to exempt their children from vaccination requirements based on personal conviction, religious or medical reasons.

The new vaccination requirement is among a host of changes DHS is looking to make to the state’s immunization policies for school children, which the department said hasn’t been substantially revised since 1981.

Some speakers Friday also took issue with a proposed change that would require a health care provider confirm a child has had chicken pox as an exception to receiving the required vaccine. Currently parents can report such history themselves.

Psket argued it would require contagious children to be brought to pediatric offices where chicken pox, known scientifically as varicella, could spread.

But Schauer said reports by parents are becoming less reliable with the instances of the infection dropping, which can result in some parents falsely believing their children had chicken pox.

Several of the proposed changes relate to defining what constitutes a “substantial outbreak” for certain diseases, such as chicken pox, meningococcal disease and mumps.

Under the proposed changes, the requirement for the Tdap vaccination — tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis — would move from sixth grade to seventh grade.

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Logan Wroge is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has been with the newspaper since 2015.

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