OKLAHOMA CITY – A state representative said his recent informational meeting at the state Capitol focusing on adverse reactions to vaccines wasn’t meant to discourage people from vaccinating their children.
State Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, said his biggest concern is ensuring vaccinations are safe for the public.
“I think this is some very important information that we need to hear,” West said. “I’ve heard probably upwards of 20 bills that are related to (vaccinations). I felt it was very important that we have a meeting like this so we can hear both sides.”
Still, West said Friday that there’s a possibility that his Tuesday meeting, which focused primarily on bad immunization experiences, could cause Oklahomans to fear medically recommended immunizations. But hopefully, he said, that will spur more pro-immunization professionals to attend future vaccination study sessions hosted by state lawmakers.
West, who said he’s not a vaccine skeptic, said he tried to invite pro-immunization medical professionals to the meeting that promised to look at “public concerns on all sides of the issue.” Few medical professionals chose to attend compared to the more “skeptical side,” he said.
“They’re more willing to come to a meeting and talk about experiences they’ve had whereas the (state) Health Department and the pro-side doesn’t want to attend and participate,” he said. “We need to have an environment where we can come together, where you’re not labeled ‘pro’ or ‘anti.’”
West’s meeting featured several Oklahomans, including licensed physicians, who spoke at length about adverse reactions to immunizations. Parents believed their children’s developmental issues and deaths were linked to vaccinations.
More than a dozen hands in the meeting room went up when a parental choice advocate asked whose children had been injured or killed by a vaccine.
After the meeting, Liza Greve, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights, said the focus of the conversation should be for parents to do more research about vaccines. Her group has several thousand members.
“I think it’s not about prevention or abolishing vaccines,” she said. “It’s about parents being informed and maybe possibility looking at the uniqueness of their child and possibility preventing an injury.”
She said her group is taking a proactive approach on immunization parental choice that includes taking their message to the halls of the state Capitol and lawmakers.
“It’s about educating our Legislature because what happens if we get a measles outbreak and they get a little feisty with our rights?” she asked. “Often, fear will cause legislators to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.”
Greve testified her son suffered encephalitis – brain inflammation – that left him disabled.
Health professionals say there’s a 1 in a million statistical chance of getting injured by a vaccine, she said. Greve believes adverse reactions are grossly underreported.
“Vaccines are safe and effective. The benefits of being vaccinated far outweigh the risks,” said Dr. Dwight Sublett, president of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a statement after the hearing.
Before vaccinations were readily available, thousands of Oklahoma babies, children and adults suffered dire complications from serious diseases such as measles, mumps and polio, said Dr. Larry Bookman, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, in a statement. He also was not invited to speak at West’s meeting.
“The reason this is no longer an issue is because America’s childhood immunization efforts are one of the most effective public health programs in history,” he said. “Despite the effectiveness of these life-saving vaccines, there remains a vocal, misinformed minority who are working to chip away at this essential program. With this in mind, I’m calling on our state leaders to embrace the facts regarding the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.”
Dr. Heather Revelis said her oldest son was injured by a vaccine. Up until his routine 12-month shots, she told lawmakers that he had developed normally, but then he began to regress. Today, his IQ is in the 60s, she said.
She said only a tiny fraction of adverse reactions to vaccinations are actually reported and little is being done to study, track or improve reporting.
“It’s not too surprising that the public is beginning to lose confidence in the vaccine program,” she said.
Overall, 91.4 percent of kindergartners were up to date on all vaccines, according to recent State Department of Health statistics. That's up 1 percent from the year prior.
Dr. Andrew Revelis, husband of Heather Revelis, said he was part of the “conventional medical system” when his child was born, but now believes lawmakers should never compel families to do something that is an unproven treatment.
“It is important that we take this responsibility very seriously and wait for the science and research to catch up – if it ever can,” he said.
Science and evidence-based practices should inform policy in Oklahoma, said Jenny Koetter, chair of the Central Oklahoma Immunization Coalition, in a statement.
“Improved rates for vaccination through access, education, and reporting can move the needle in the health of Oklahomans,” she said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.