Meningitis vaccination mandate fails in Legislature

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February 12, 2015 - 5:25pm

Supporters of requiring Nebraska school children to be vaccinated against meningitis gave up this year’s attempt in the Legislature on Thursday.


It was another day of increasingly hard slogging for supporters of requiring the vaccinations, faced with a filibuster by senators who said they opposed government mandates. Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, lead sponsor of the vaccine bill, told his colleagues they needed to take responsibility. "In the interests of public safety, public health, that’s our job. We send out mandates if it is required to maintain discipline," Krist said.

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins opposed requiring vaccinations against meningitis as unnecessary. "I don’t care much for mandates. I understand where they’re needed. I don’t think this is one of those places. We had zero cases of this disease in Nebraska last year; very few, I think one or two, the year before. This is not something that’s overwhelming the state," Bloomfield said.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, leading the filibuster against the bill, said there was no hue and cry for it. "When I ran for office, I told my voters I believed in limited government (and) personal responsibility. This bill flies in the face of both those principles," Groene said.

Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell, a veterinarian who teaches immunology, urged senators to defer to the medical community, which supports requiring the vaccinations. "I think we have to be careful about overstepping our level of intelligence. Wikipedia does not equate to a medical degree. Nor does simply reading an article and taking a few statements out of it and thinking that we understand that that is science. It’s much more complicated," Kuehn said. "The medical community, the public health community, is undivided and clear on this issue, and I think we need to respect their expertise."

Groene said he was getting his facts from the Centers for Disease Control, not Wikipedia. And Bloomfield said he disagreed that senators should defer to the medical community. "We all have a job to do here. Inform yourself to the best of your ability. Consult with the people that sent you here – see what they think. Vote as you feel you must, or as you feel you should. The idea that we relinquish any authority to any given profession in here is mistaken and wrong, Bloomfield said.

As it became clear Thursday that there weren’t enough votes to break the filibuster by opponents, Krist temporarily agreed with Groene on a compromise. It would have expanded an existing exemption in Nebraska vaccination law on religious grounds to include philosophical grounds as well.

But vaccination supporters like Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids feared that would open the door for more people to opt out of vaccinations that are already required against other diseases, like measles, mumps and rubella. "Those are tried and true. We can debate all we want about the meningococcal disease and the vaccination. But the other ones have been in place for many, many years and have proven that we have won the war in those areas," Sullivan said.

Krist then requested the Legislature stop debate on his bill, saying later medical groups which had supported it didn’t want it watered down. Krist added he hopes no children who would have been protected by immunization get meningitis before legislators address the issue again.

Also on Thursday, Krist withdrew a threat he had made to try and send a ban on job discrimination based on sexual orientation back to committee following what he said were anti-Catholic remarks by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers. "I don’t think I need to say any more. I think this issue is closed. I think the press made a lot more out of it than it needed to be. But I do think that a common respect and civility for members of this body is the way we should go forward," Krist said.

Krist said he’ll try to strengthen an exemption for religious organizations to the ban when the Legislature debates the bill.

And on another issue, Scott Frakes, the new director of the Department of Correctional Services, testified before the Judiciary Committee. Frakes said he realizes there’s been a significant erosion of trust in the department, whose prisons are 60 percent over capacity and which last year released hundreds of inmates too early. He said it will be a monumental task to address those problems.

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