Mediators were dispatched to help keep the conversation civil at a health forum in Chicago last week — a clear sign of the passionate opinions elicited by the debate about whether the federal government should recommend that babies be vaccinated against meningitis.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends meningitis immunizations for children ages 11 to 18 to help prevent the rare but potentially fatal bacterial meningitis. But the recent FDA approval of a vaccine for babies as young as 9 months has prompted federal officials to consider adding it to the 16 immunizations on the CDC recommendation schedule.
In recent years, other additions to the recommended vaccine schedule have been met with outrage from a small but vocal group mostly of parents who say vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent and can cause serious disorders such as autism. Scientific studies — dozens of them involving hundreds of thousands of study subjects from around the world — have failed to find data supporting those hypotheses.
The influence of these groups has caused anxiety over vaccines, leading to clusters of partly or wholly unvaccinated children. Health officials worry that if more parents opt out of vaccinating their children, rare childhood diseases will resurge.
And that makes introducing a new recommendation to the schedule a sensitive event, leading the CDC to gather public input about this latest proposed addition.
The event, co-sponsored by the CDC and the Chicago Area Immunization Campaign, marked the third of four public discussions across the nation.
"The CDC has never done this before," said Glen Nowak, senior adviser for the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "We've done public education about pandemics and vaccines, but now we're talking about who should get this vaccine. We're trying to see, Are people skeptical? Or do they think this is a good idea, and why?"
Nowak said any changes to Illinois immunization recommendations and requirements for infants and school-age children will be decided by state agencies.
"The CDC makes recommendations, but we don't have the legal authority to require" immunizations, Nowak said.
Meningitis is the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, known as the meninges, and typically is caused by an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The vaccine would help prevent the bacterial form of the disease, which usually is more severe than viral, fungal or parasitic meningitis.
Nationwide about 1,000 to 2,600 people get meningococcal disease each year, according to the CDC, resulting in a death rate of roughly 10 to 15 percent, even with antibiotic treatments. For survivors, 11 to 19 percent may require amputations, become deaf or develop problems with their nervous systems.
Among those who participated in the Chicago forum was Frankie Milley, whose only child, Ryan Milley, died when he was a teenager of a form of meningococcal meningitis that is preventable with a vaccine. She is trying to spread the word that childhood immunizations save lives.
"I hear people say, 'We don't even have some of these diseases anymore, so why do we need all these immunizations?'" added Milley, founder and director of Meningitis Angels, a nonprofit organization supporting victims of vaccine-preventable bacterial meningitis and their families.
"What many people don't realize is the reason we don't see these diseases anymore is because of immunizations," Milley said.
Others said they attended the forum to learn and listen.
State Rep. Patti Bellock, R-Hinsdale, said the immunization debate is of great concern to many of her constituents.
"I've talked to some moms who seem to have more of a fear about vaccines than the diseases themselves," Bellock said, adding, "but many of them are too young to have seen some of these diseases themselves."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times