Bill would change immunization rules

by vaccines for polio, mumps and chicken pox.

Treating and preventing many common illnesses used to be simple.

A doctor gave you a prescription, you took it to the drug store and a pharmacist filled the order. Childhood illnesses that devastated earlier generations had been zapped by vaccines for polio, mumps and chicken pox.

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Not any more. With the rise of the religious right, many of the miracles of modern medicine — from children’s vaccinations to birth control to emerging treatments derived through stem cell research — have become battlegrounds in the morality wars.

Bills have been filed this year that would cut off access to emergency contraception and allow pharmacists to refuse to fill a prescription if they had a moral objection to the medication.

One bill now gaining attention is one that many health care professionals consider an attack on childhood immunizations. But the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph, said his proposal is merely an effort to encourage vaccine-makers to come up with new vaccines for chicken pox and rubella.

A little-known fact is that those two vaccines are produced in cell lines that originally came from fetuses that were aborted in Sweden in 1964 and 1970. Schaaf, a family physician, said he hoped that his bill would encourage people to get vaccinations rather than use a religious exemption from immunization requirements.

“As it is now, every child is injected with serum from a process that started with aborted fetuses,” Schaaf said. “This bill is designed to raise awareness. All patients should feel comfortable using required immunizations. But with so many religious exemptions, the effectiveness of the vaccines is reduced. As a physician, I want the most people possible to get these vaccinations.”

But Rep. Sam Page, a Creve Coeur Democrat who is also a physician, said vaccinations have prevented an untold amount of human suffering. Any quibble with the original source of a vaccine some 40 years ago is outweighed by the benefits the vaccines have wrought, he said.

“It can be a difficult question for some people, but you have to ask whether there are alternatives available,” Page said. “I don’t know that you can force a company to find an alternative way of making the vaccine and in the meantime there are real children’s lives at stake here.”

Schaaf’s proposal, known as House Bill 463, would prohibit the state from paying for any vaccine produced using a cell culture derived from an aborted fetus unless no other vaccine is available. Beginning in 2010, the state could not buy such a vaccine even if no alternative were available.

In addition, the parents of any child given a vaccine produced from cell cultures of an aborted fetus would have to be informed of the original source and given a chance to refuse the immunization.

Rep. Rachel Storch, a St. Louis Democrat, said the bill presents several dangers to public health and is inherently unfair to poor children. Even if manufacturers came up with alternative vaccines, there is a good chance that they would be less effective than current versions, she said.

That would mean that wealthy children could get the best vaccines while poor children who depend on state-paid medical care would get a less potent version.

“We should not be setting up a two-tiered health care system,” Storch said.

While such a system would be directly detrimental to poor children, it would carry implications for everyone, she said.

“It’s what is called ‘herd immunity,'” Storch said. “If kids are not vaccinated against these diseases, they can give them to other people. So the entire ‘herd’ is less healthy.”

Schaaf said vaccine makers such as Merck & Co. can certainly come up with alternative ways to make vaccines. They just need to be pushed. He said he agreed with the adage that the good that comes from evil does not justify the evil.

Ironically, the Catholic Church, one of the leading abortion opponents in the nation, doesn’t go that far. In a paper issued two years ago, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life it would support a person’s decision not to take a vaccine made from cell lines that started with aborted fetuses. But such a decision should be made only after considering whether it would pose a serious risk to the child or to the general public, the paper said.

Morally objectionable vaccines can be morally justified by balancing “cooperation with evil” and concerns about public health, the paper said. Because the abortions occurred some 40 years ago, using such vaccines is an evil so remote and it carries little moral value compared with the greater good of stopping infectious disease.

A few lawmakers suggested that Schaaf’s motivation for filing the bill was aimed more at currying favor with abortion opponents than with banning current vaccines. Schaaf opposes abortion rights, but has been a strong supporter of research on early stem cells. That has put him at odds with Missouri Right to Life and other abortion opponents.

Schaaf’s bill was assigned to a committee in February, but has yet to receive a public hearing. Schaaf acknowledged that little support for his bill had emerged and that it’s chances of passing at this stage were slim.

Storch agreed, saying the bill was a bad idea on many levels.

“That bill represents a personal belief that he wants to impose on a statewide basis,” Storch said.