Senate HELP Committee’s hearing on vaccines

Nissa Shaffi

On March 5, 2019, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on vaccines and their critical role in halting preventable disease outbreaks. The hearing featured a witness panel consisting of experts from various disciplines, such as public health officials, specialists in pediatric medicine, epidemiology, and the primary immunodeficiency space, as well as Ethan Lindenberger, a high school student who recently obtained vaccinations against the wishes of his parents.

The hearing was noteworthy in that every member of the HELP committee–both liberal Democratic and conservative Republican–supports routine vaccinations. The only hesitation came from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY)–who supports other vaccinations and vaccinates his kids and himself–on flu vaccinations. He was roundly corrected by a doctor-Member of the HELP Committee, Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), who said that while flu vaccines aren’t always hitting the right strain, they always lessen the symptoms. 

Recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine were confirmed to be “the gold standard” and got kudos from everyone on the panel. In the face of a very anti-science administration, good medicine and good science overwhelmingly prevailed and won the day.

The hearing also drove home the importance of increasing the dissemination of factual, evidence-based research about the safety of vaccines to consumers. Confirming previous research, a new 10-year study conducted in Denmark found that there is no correlation between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Researchers studied 657,461 Danish children between 1999-2010, and discovered that the MMR vaccine did not increase the risk for autism or trigger autism in susceptible children.

Below are some of the highlights of the witnesses’ testimony:   

Public health burden from outbreaks

The resurgence of measles is not only detrimental to affected individuals, but it also presents an incredible burden on public health infrastructure as communities struggle to contain an incredibly infectious disease outbreak.

Dr. John Wiesman, Secretary of Health, Washington State Department of Health, stated that while the MMR vaccine costs $20 per dose, the current outbreak has cost the state of Washington approximately $1 million — as well as the time investment of more than 200 individuals contributing more than 10,000 hours of work to help contain the outbreak and investigate the trajectory and sources of possible contamination. Dr. Wiesman also mentioned that every dollar spent on vaccines generates a cost savings of $10.

Vaccine hesitancy

Officials credit the proliferation of measles across the country to growing anti-vaccine sentiments. HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) stressed that low immunization rates destroy herd immunity and that annual child and adult vaccine schedules help to ensure individual and community safety.

Mr. Lindenberger explained how the Internet was instrumental in both spreading misinformation regarding vaccines to his parents, and conversely, how crucial it was to helping him obtain factual data on the safety of vaccines — and convincing him he needed to get vaccinated. Lindenberger stressed the importance of education to help stem the tide of misinformation surrounding the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

The witnesses also stated that vaccine confidence is built through physician consultation. Parents have been known to reverse their anti-vaccine stance when physicians provide counseling, allowing for an objective, judgment-free space for parents to ask questions. Healthcare provider counseling not only assuages looming doubts regarding vaccine safety but helps to protect the entire community in the process.

Vaccine regulation, research, and funding

Several witnesses from the HELP hearing emphasized the importance of building vaccine confidence through sound research, dissemination of factual information, policy implementation, and funding.

John Boyle, president and CEO of the Immune Deficiency Foundation, expressed how important vaccines have been to his survival as an individual with a primary immunodeficiency disease. For individuals like Boyle, survival is contingent on herd immunity, as he is not able to get vaccinated himself.

Dr. Wiesman joined with other advocacy organizations in calling on Congress to increase the budget of the CDC by 22 percent by 2022. Dr. Wiesman also requested that the federal government launch a national vaccine education campaign, similar to the anti-tobacco Truth campaign.

Dr. Saad B. Omer, professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at Emory University, recommended that Congress make physician vaccine counseling reimbursable, as providers are often overburdened and this could aid in their efforts. Dr. Omer also recommended the continued prioritization of vaccine safety research and greater investment in vaccine acceptance and communication research.

NCL thanks the Senate HELP Committee and other Members of Congress for shining a light on the importance of vaccination, and NCL will continue our work to dispel the myths and educate the public on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.