Politics & Government

Injuries, illness fuel California vaccine bill partisans

At her Pasadena home, Ariel Loop, 27, holds her 7-month-old son Mobius, who contracted measles in January at Disneyland. Mobius is fully vaccinated, but the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine isn’t given until the age of 1.
At her Pasadena home, Ariel Loop, 27, holds her 7-month-old son Mobius, who contracted measles in January at Disneyland. Mobius is fully vaccinated, but the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine isn’t given until the age of 1. Special to The Bee

Physical suffering has a way of jolting people into action.

A bill requiring full vaccinations for almost every California school child has charged Sacramento, mobilizing constituents who arrive from around the state for impassioned, marathon hearings. Much work at the Capitol can seem obscure and remote from most citizens, but Senate Bill 277 has connected with people on an emotional level.

Those on both sides of the issue have described experiences of bodily harm, sometimes to themselves but more often to children. Proponents of SB 277 cite the casualties of whooping cough and measles outbreaks and the nearly forgotten risk of older scourges like polio; detractors warn that vaccines themselves are too hazardous for the state to mandate them.

Here are some of their stories. Each of these people has come to Sacramento to testify for or against the bill.

AGAINST: Polly Von Thaden, Dixon

Polly Von Thaden staffs a booth Tuesday to campaign against Senate Bill 277 at the state Capitol. Von Thaden says her son suffered severe and permanent medical conditions as a result of childhood vaccinations and notes that the National Vaccine Injury Compensation fund has authorized nearly $3 billion in payments. Randall Benton rbenton@sacbee.com

To those reassuring her vaccines are safe, Polly Von Thaden retorts: Then why did the federal government pay her for what happened to her son?

“It happens far more than people realize,” said Von Thaden, who could be found during a recent hearing at a Capitol lawn booth festooned with anti-SB 277 signs.

Vaccination skeptics are quick to point out that a federal court exists solely to compensate people who have suffered medical fallout from vaccines, and that to date the National Vaccine Injury Compensation fund has authorized nearly $3 billion in payments to thousands of people.

Within 48 hours of her son’s 18-month shots, Von Thaden said, he had landed in an intensive care unit. He screamed ceaselessly and regressed, Von Thaden recounted, from a child who could rattle off the scientific names of dinosaurs to one who had to relearn how to walk and talk. Symptoms persist to this day, she said.

“There are days that he seems like he’s perfectly fine and there are days that he walks like he’s drunk,” Von Thaden said. “This has been going on since those vaccines.”

Through someone at her son’s day care center, Von Thaden learned about the vaccine court’s existence and embarked on a long legal odyssey to seek recompense. Settlement recipients like Von Thaden worry that most parents remain unaware of both the court and the legally documented perils of vaccines.

“I wasn’t anti-vax. I took my son in dutifully to get his vaccines,” said Amy Mitten-Smith, who has traveled from San Diego to testify at SB 277 hearings about the settlement awarded to her disabled son. “I regret the fact that I didn’t look into vaccines as closely as I looked into car seats.”

FOR: Ramona Garcia, Sacramento

Ramona Garcia, who had polio as a child and is now in a wheelchair, prepares to testify Tuesday in favor of Senate Bill 277 . Randall Benton rbenton@sacbee.com

As once-terrifying diseases recede from living memory, stories of influenza and polio epidemics begin to seem like relics of history.

Ramona Garcia is no relic. Using a wheelchair she needs due to a childhood bout with polio, she has rolled into every hearing to tearfully plead with lawmakers not to allow the return of illnesses like the one that upended her life.

“This disease is terrible. It’s preventable. Let’s support this bill,” Garcia, who is 77, said at a recent hearing. “There were thousands and thousands of people with this disease in the ’30s and ’40s.”

Elderly Californians who support Senate Bill 277 can sound incredulous when talking about the furor the bill has stirred up. They wonder how people would feel if they had experienced diseases successfully suppressed by vaccines.

As a former nurse, Garcia speaks from a place of some authority when she emphasizes that vaccines effectively protect public health. But beyond her medical training, her motivation flows from the suffering to which she has borne witness.

“When I grew up, I saw kids in iron lungs, walkers, wheelchairs,” Garcia said ahead of a hearing, and it was not just polio inflicting damage. “We had kids dying of whooping cough,” she said, which has begun reappearing in California.

AGAINST: Jennifer Aleksic, Folsom

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Jennifer Aleksic, left, says her daughter Kiley Michalec, center, had a seizure after a vaccination at age 18 months. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

Harm from vaccines is tough to prove. Many of the parents lining up to condemn Senate Bill 277 cite their “vaccine-injured” children (not a scientific term) as living evidence the bill would put kids at risk; few have conclusive evidence, like the payout Von Thaden received, affirming their suspicions that a vaccine directly caused the damage.

“It may be caused by the vaccine, it may be associated ... or possibly it’s coincidental,” said Dean Blumberg, a physician at UC Davis Medical Center. “Sometimes it’s difficult to sort those out.”

Two separate incidents have convinced Jennifer Aleksic that it was the vaccines.

When she was a teenager, Aleksic was caring for an infant godson who died on the day he had received shots. Doctors concluded he had succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome. Aleksic accepted that explanation at the time.

Then, years later, it was time for Aleksic’s daughter to get her 18-month shots. The child quaked with seizures and had to be hospitalized. It was a revelation.

“The doctors told me it was coincidence – there was no way to prove it was the vaccine – and I just couldn’t accept that,” Aleksic said. She came to believe her godson’s vaccines had also played a role in his death. “There’s no doubt in my mind, especially after watching my daughter have a reaction,” she said.

She began researching vaccines herself. She does not consider the medical professionals who assessed her godson and daughter to have the final, authoritative word on the matter.

“Science is not absolute,” Aleksic said. “Just because you can’t prove, you can’t disprove either.”

FOR: Ariel Loop, Pasadena

At her Pasadena home, Ariel Loop, 27, holds her 7-month-old son Mobius, who contracted measles in January at Disneyland. Mobius is fully vaccinated, but the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine isn’t given until the age of 1. Nancy Pastor Special to The Bee

Measles transformed Disneyland from one of the world’s happier places to the focal point of the SB 277 debate. An outbreak there was able to spread quickly, SB 277’s backers say, because low vaccination rates poked too many holes in the protective wall of “herd immunity” needed to stifle epidemics.

Ariel Loop had been taking extra precautions with her premature infant son, waiting to take him out of the house and fretting about other illnesses for which he was too young to be immunized.

“I was more worried about whooping cough and the flu” than about measles, Loop said.

A trip to Disneyland changed that. Two weeks after the visit, her son began rubbing his eyes vigorously. Then the fever and rash appeared. Loop brought her son to a hospital and, after a measles diagnosis, had to quarantine him at home.

The child has mostly recovered, Loop said, but continues to rub his eyes. He scratches his face enough that she keeps his nails trimmed short. And for years she will need to monitor for signs of encephalitis, or brain swelling, a rare measles side effect that can cause significant and lasting damage.

As she reassesses how the episode played out, Loop isn’t sure skipping Disneyland would have made a difference. Sounding like someone who feels besieged, she said she does not know how she could have protected her son.

“It was in the community. It was everywhere, and it spread,” Loop said.

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

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