Oklahomans On Both Sides Of Proposed Vaccine Bill
TULSA, Oklahoma - In 1955, America rejoiced with a discovery of a vaccine to rid the nation of the scourge of polio. Supplies were rushed to every state, and people lined up for hours for the vaccinations.
Fast forward 60 years, and times have changed.
Increasing numbers of parents are choosing not to have their children vaccinated against polio or any other disease.
In Oklahoma, the number of exemptions has more than doubled in the past decade, and one lawmaker is saying enough is enough.
Aiden Smith was three weeks old when he was rushed to the hospital with whooping cough - a disease once thought to be all but eradicated; a disease that can be prevented with a simple vaccine took Aiden's life.
“It just hurts. “It’s a hole in your heart,” said Aiden’s father, Dustin Smith.
In the three years since his death, Dustin and Kristin Smith have tried to make sense of Aiden's loss by sharing their story.
“It’s something we don't want anyone to have to feel. For sure,” Kristin said.
They are passionate advocates for vaccinations and for tightening requirements in public schools and daycares.
At less than two months, Aiden was too young for vaccines and had to rely on the protection of those around him.
“It’s not just for our family, but it’s for others. It’s for people who are ill and can't vaccinate,” Kristin said.
But some say vaccines come with a risk, too.
The government insists adverse reactions are rare, but a simple glance at the Internet tells you many people remain unconvinced; and while the debate rages, disease spreads.
In 1976, the U.S. recorded just over 1,000 cases of whooping cough; by 2012, the number had jumped to more than 48,000.
“I don't understand why so many people listen to the celebrities and not the scientists,” said State Senator Ervin Yen.
Just weeks before Yen took office, a measles outbreak at Disneyland spurred California to tighten its restrictions on who is allowed to opt out of vaccinations.
As a cardiac anesthesiologist, Yen thought it was time Oklahoma did the same.
“In my mind, the science is clear, the medicine is clear. I'm sure there are some physicians who might disagree with me, but I haven't met them yet,” he said.
Oklahoma law already requires students be vaccinated to attend public schools, but it also gives parents an out for medical, personal or religious reasons.
Terry: “So you can just sign and opt out?”
Yen: “Right, exactly. And so my bill would take away the religious and personal exemptions.”
Yen knows that many of his fellow republicans will balk at supporting a bill they see as infringing on religious freedom, but he said vaccines are a matter of public safety - which is exactly the concern of those on the other side.
“You start going down a really slippery slope when you start putting laws into place that force you to, basically, inject stuff in your body that you may or may not know what you're really getting,” one woman said.
She wanted her identity hidden, not because she's ashamed, but because she worries her children - now 10 and 12 and in public school - could get caught in the backlash.
The woman said she would never want to endanger others, but said there is no guarantee either way.
“You can give your kids all the vaccines they say you should...and I have known families whose kids have been so harmed from that. So I think, at the end of the day, you just have to decide what you can sleep with at night,” she said.
Kristin said. “It’s so much bigger than us, so much bigger,”
The Smiths said that freedom of choice comes with a price, as their son Aiden fought for his life for almost a month.
“It was 27 days, but it was a blessed 27 days,” Dustin said.
A public hearing for Yen’s bill is scheduled for November 5 at the State Capitol.
Yen's bill would not require children who are home schooled to be vaccinated, but it would apply to private school students.
He said he doesn't want to take away personal freedoms, he just wants to balance them with the welfare of others.
The senator said he is not optimistic about the bill’s chances.