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Doctors fear legislation could discourage parents from getting children vaccinated

Earlier this month, the British medical journal The Lancet retracted a famous study that linked vaccines with autism.

Public health experts, worried over an uptick in diseases like mumps and measles in children who weren't vaccinated, breathed a sigh of relief. Numerous studies have found no link between vaccines and autism.

But now, an echo of that controversy is back in the Florida Legislature, and pediatricians are moving quickly to silence it.

Sen. Jeremy Ring, a member of a governor's task force on autism spectrum disorders, and Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, are sponsoring legislation that would require parents to give signed consent before their children get vaccines that are required to enter school.

"It's about having a face-to-face discussion," said Ring, a Broward County Republican.

But opponents say signed consent — generally reserved for surgery and other major treatments — will only create needless anxiety. Under federal law, parents must be given written information about vaccines.

Medical groups, led by the Florida Pediatric Society, voiced their opposition. Ambler's bill received a frosty reception when it was heard in a House committee meeting on Feb. 16, and some — including Ring — say the measure faces an uphill climb.

But the doctors are also wary that the bill may be the start of another effort to push other autism task force recommendations, including one that would make it easier for parents to exempt their children from vaccinations. Another would ban the mercury-based preservative thimerosal from vaccines.

Those measures, and another that would allow vaccination schedules to be spread out, died in committees last year.

Ring and Ambler say their bills have nothing to do with the autism controversy. "We want to remove ourselves from that debate," Ring said, adding that if any of the other proposals are added, "I would kill the bill."

"The legislation is not taking a stand for or against vaccinations," said Ambler, adding he supports vaccinations. "It's merely trying to provide parents the information they need."

The Pediatric Society, the Florida Medical Association and the Florida Association of Children's Hospitals are among groups that have signed a joint statement urging legislators to keep to scientific evidence when making decisions about vaccines.

"We don't want anything that's going to put more hurdles up," said Dr. Tommy Schectman, a Palm Beach County pediatrician and executive board member for the Florida Pediatric Society.

To enter a Florida public or private school, children must be vaccinated against polio; measles, mumps and rubella (MMR); diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP); hepatitis B and varicella. Many of these conditions can be fatal.

The current legislation stems from recommendations of the Governor's Task Force on Autism Spectrum Disorders, created in 2008. It includes doctors and autism experts, as well as football legend Dan Marino, who has a son with autism; and Dr. Gary Kompothecras, the multimillionaire Sarasota chiropractor famous for his 1-800-Ask-Gary lawyer referral business. He has two children with autism, and has contributed to the campaigns of lawmakers who have sponsored vaccine bills, including Ambler and Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, who last year sponsored bills to ban thimerosal, set alternative vaccination schedules, and allow exemptions for philosophical reasons.

Currently, parents can exempt children from vaccines only for medical or religious reasons.

It's uncertain whether lawmakers will introduce those measures again this year. Bennett could not be reached. But the signed consent bill on its own worries doctors.

Dr. David Berman, an infectious disease specialist at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, said federal law that requires doctors to give written vaccine information is sufficient. Some medical practices already have parents sign or initial a form acknowledging they have received the material.

He also said requiring a signature by a parent or legal guardian can cause delays because children are often brought into clinics by family members who may not be authorized to sign.

Schectman adds that because signed informed consent is usually reserved for higher-risk procedures, the requirement may make parents think vaccinations are risky, when they're not.

Ring said he thinks the doctors' concerns are off base.

"It's not an attack on vaccinations," he said. "I believe if parents don't vaccinate their children, we'll have a measles outbreak."

Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8330.

Doctors fear legislation could discourage parents from getting children vaccinated 02/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 10:55pm]

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