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Immunization supporters gearing up to fight opt-out policy

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Signs at the entry to Children's Minneapolis's primary care clinic.
Signs at the entry to Children's Minneapolis's primary care clinic on May 10.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News file

Two and a half months into the measles outbreak, immunization supporters say more people than ever are voicing concern about unvaccinated kids.

"People are fed up and they're angry and they're ready to push back," said Karen Ernst, who leads The Minnesota Childhood Immunization Coalition, a pro-vaccination group. 

"A lot of parents are mobilized," she said. "I've heard from more parents in the last two months that I have in the last four years combined."

Ernst hopes to build on that energy and harness it to pressure next year's Legislature to change state law. 

Other states have responded to measles outbreaks by tightening immunization requirements — most notably California. Minnesota has one of the weakest immunization laws in the country, said Diane Peterson of St. Paul-based Immunization Action Coalition, which tracks and promotes vaccination nationally. 

"It's been changing in other states, but unfortunately not in Minnesota," she said.

Most Minnesotans who have contracted measles over the past two and a half months are Somali-American children in the Twin Cities, a group with low vaccination rates. Health officials worry about many more pockets of Minnesotans with low immunization rates, too.

Peterson said Minnesota lawmakers have faced fierce opposition from well-organized and vocal opponents of changing immunization law.

"We've pretty much seen that the bills are not getting hearings because the chairs of the committees know that it's going to be controversial. It shouldn't be," she said.

But Twila Brase, who leads the St. Paul-based Citizens Council for Health Freedom, said there's is plenty of controversy about mandatory immunization. 

"There's just a baseline of the individual's right to not have certain procedures done to them," Brase said. "Because once you start down that slope, what's the next thing that somebody said, 'You all have to do in order to protect me.' It's much bigger than measles."

Brase predicts supporters of a tighter immunization law in Minnesota will have a hard time at the Capitol, regardless of the current outbreak. 

A lobbyist for the state's largest doctors organization is also skeptical about the odds of a law change. Minnesota Medical Association representative Dave Renner said the outbreak has moved the needle in the debate over vaccination.

"Clearly I'm hoping this reminds legislators of why we have immunization laws in the first place," he said. "It's a sad fact that we have to have something like this measles outbreak to get people to realize the importance of vaccination." 

Ernst said the key is whether vaccination supporters can mobilize people who agree with them. Historically, they've been a silent majority, Ernst said. 

"Parents who want no measles in their schools also share some of the blame too because they haven't been as vocal as they needed to be," she said.