By Shereen Siewert

A Wisconsin advocacy group is pushing back against a proposal to require all Wisconsin students entering seventh grade to show proof of meningococcal vaccination.

The meningococcal vaccine is recommended by the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians to reduce the incidence of bacterial meningitis and sepsis. Since 2005, the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has recommended that the vaccine be administered at the 11-12 year old health care visit, along with other routine vaccinations such as Tdap. Critics claim the vaccine is unnecessary and doesn’t work.

Currently, the vaccination is not a state requirement, but the state Department of Health Services is now proposing a change in policy. All states surrounding Wisconsin — Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota — require either students to receive the meningococcal vaccination, according to DHS. With the exception of Michigan, the three other states also require a booster shot.

During a public hearing last week in Madison, parental choice advocates squared off with those who say the vaccine should be mandatory to prevent the potentially fatal disease and align with recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Amber Psket, co-founder of the Wisconsin United for Freedom organization,attended the hearing to publicly oppose the mandatory vaccination proposal. In an email to Wausau Pilot and Review, Psket criticized the way the meeting was conducted and is calling for additional hearings to address the concerns of her organization, which advocates for vaccine exemptions.

“Public comment was cut off (people had driven hours to speak and were denied) and we were not adequately heard,” Psket wrote. “This needs to be rectified with an additional public hearing.”

Psket said her organization’s opposition pertains to freedom of choice — and the vaccine itself.

“This particular vaccine does not contribute to herd immunity and is essentially only protecting the individual,” she said. “Therefore, being mandated seems pointless.”

Psket also questions whether the accumulative vaccine schedule was ever tested for safety or efficacy.

Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria and can result in meningitis — an inflammation that affects the brain and spinal cord — and septicemia, which is an infection of the bloodstream that can cause bleeding into skin and organs, according to the CDC. The disease is spread through oral and nasal secretion, and those most likely at risk are people living in close quarters with others and those in relationships.

The Department of Health Services is proposing Wisconsin children not only be required to receive the vaccine before entering seventh grade, but also receive another booster shot before entering 12th grade. If the proposal is adopted, the requirements would take effect in the 2021-22 school year.

There were 353 cases of meningococcal disease reported in the United States in 2017, according to the CDC. Four of the cases were in Wisconsin, with one being in the known serogroups the vaccine aims to prevent.

The new vaccination requirement is one of several immunization policy changes DHS is proposing for the state’s school children, which the department said hasn’t been substantially revised since 1981.

CDC first recommended preteens and teens get a MenACWY vaccine in 2005. Since then, rates of meningococcal disease in teens caused by serogroups C, Y, and W has decreased by over 90 percent, according to the agency.

Still, Psket said, it comes down to parental choice.

“We as parents wish to reserve the right to make decisions for our children based off of what we think is best and not the state,” Psket said. “Vaccines are a medical procedure that carry real risks…and we should be able to abstain from them without the threat of withholding our child’s education.”