Flu Shots for Children Grow Near in New Jersey
By JILL P. CAPUZZO
Despite opposition from numerous parents and children’s rights advocates, a public health advisory panel voted on Monday to require all children in New Jersey who attend preschool or are in day care to get annual flu vaccinations.
Before the vote, some parents who believe in a link between vaccinations and autism spoke against the proposal, but state officials said they did not believe there was such a connection.
The measure, expected to be approved by the state health commissioner in the next week, will make New Jersey the first state in the country to mandate such immunizations.
By a vote of 5 to 2, with two abstentions, the advisory panel, the New Jersey Public Health Council, recommended approval of the flu shot requirement, as well as requiring three other new vaccines for school children. The other immunizations are a vaccine against pneumonia for preschoolers and two vaccines for middle school students, one against a fast-killing strain of meningitis and the other a booster for the immunization against tetanus, pertussis and diphtheria, which is already routinely given in first grade.
Department of Health officials said that they expected the health commissioner, Dr. Fred M. Jacobs, to sign the measure by Dec. 18. The new vaccines would become mandatory on Sept. 1. But those getting immunized against the flu would have until December 2008 because of the shipment dates of the vaccine, said Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, New Jersey’s deputy commissioner of health and state immunologist.
At the start of the standing-room-only public meeting on Monday morning, Dr. Bresnitz outlined his department’s reasons to support requiring the new vaccines, saying that they were important for disease prevention, influenza being the greatest offender. Extrapolating from statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Bresnitz said about 600 New Jersey children are hospitalized annually for influenza.
“Simply put, implementation of these rules will save lives and prevent disease and suffering in children, their families and the community,” Dr. Bresnitz said.
But not all the family and community members who attended the meeting agreed. Some parents of autistic children have argued that the vaccines already required of school-age children may be linked to autism, although many experts say that no solid evidence supports this view. A recent federal study showed that New Jersey leads the nation in its rate of autism, a neurodevelopmental condition the cause of which is still a mystery.
Some advocates and parents have suspected a link between vaccines and autism because thimerosal, a mercury-containing organic compound, has been used as a preservative in some vaccines.
Anne Downing , a Readington, N.J., mother of two, said she believed that her 7-year-old daughter’s autism was tied to two vaccines: a flu shot that she got when she was pregnant with her daughter, and a vaccine against pneumonia that the girl received as a baby. Ms. Downing invited the council’s panel to spend a day at her house to see what it was like living with a child who has autism.
“Try having a child bite chunks of skin out of herself, or tell you she’s going to chop your head off, or smear feces over the wall,” said Ms. Downing, referring to the acts of her daughter and her best friend’s son, who also suffers from autism. “Something’s going on with these vaccines, and we don’t want any more mandated.”
Dismissing the link between vaccines and autism as “scientifically unfounded,” Dr. Bresnitz also called the thimerosal argument “a moot issue,” since most vaccines are either free of the compound or contain only trace amounts, like the preschool flu vaccine. Moreover, he said, parents could request thimerosal-free formulations of the vaccines.
The new flu vaccine will be required annually for all children from 6 months to 5 years old, who attend licensed day care or preschool facilities. State law allows exemptions from the mandated vaccines for religious or medical reasons. Children who are home-schooled are also exempt from the regulations.
Sue Collins, a co-founder of the New Jersey Alliance for Informed Choice in Vaccination, said that the exemptions were difficult to secure, particularly those based on medical reasons, which state and local officials have the right to challenge, according to Dr. Bresnitz.
“We deserve a choice, not a mandate,” Ms. Collins said. “It’s our right to decide what toxic substances we inject into our children.”
Speaking on behalf of the new vaccines were two pediatricians and two public health administrators. Sharen Clugston of the New Jersey Association of Public Health Nurse Administrators said, “Vaccines have transformed the landscape of disease.”
Dr. Robert Morgan, a Monmouth County pediatrician, said that over the years he and his colleagues had “seen so many children not only suffer but die from diseases that could be immunized against.”
“That could have been prevented simply by administering a vaccine,” he said.