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Columbia Missourian

Flu cases spark concern in Missouri legislature

February 28, 2008 | 6:02 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Citing the rising number of flu cases hitting Missouri, the chair of the Senate Public Health Committee has filed a bill to create a pilot program to bring vaccines into schools.

The bill was proposed Feb. 21, ahead of this week’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel recommendation to extend flu vaccinations for children from ages six months up to 18. The previous recommendation was age six months to age five.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield. She said she wants to give the Health Department a long leash in stipulating the parameters for a flu-vaccination program. Champion said she is not in support of making the vaccine mandatory, just more available to children.

Champion’s bill would establish a pilot program that would be “subject to appropriations,” meaning the Health Department would be required to establish the program only if the legislature provided funding.

The funding requirement raised words of skepticism from one Central Missouri lawmaker.

“All those values and all those great ideas mean nothing unless there is meaning behind those three little words,” said Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, as he underlined “subject to appropriations” on the bill. “Your values and priorities meet where your dollars are at,” he said, adding he would not vote against the bill, but doubts it would be funded.

Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, also was skeptical.

“You have to question incentives if you invest money, tens of millions into a product, you need to sell a product,” he said. “What a better way to sell a product than to mandate it.”

Loudon has taken a quite different approach to school vaccinations. He has sponsored a bill that would prohibit the Health Department from mandating vaccinations for school children that have not been authorized by the legislature.

Current law, he argued, means the department director “can mandate the market for any vaccine,” said Loudon. “We’re talking about vaccination without representation. Our country has a strong tradition that we really don’t like our government making us do things, especially when we don’t have a say in the matter.”

Shoemyer said he thinks the vaccine is already very available to the public, but that there could be other benefits to the bill.

“It would be good practice,” he said. “While the flu is not necessarily a medical emergency, if there was a biological outbreak of something or a terrorist attack with a biological aspect, it would be good to have a system in place that is good with dealing with more people.”

Champion said it is important to tackle the flu for children.

“You do it in the schools and you stop it with the children because they’re the ones bringing home a lot of these viruses,” he said.

I think it’s a win-win. It’s not even important to make it mandatory.”

The bill is scheduled for a committee hearing on March 11.

A spokesperson for Missouri’s Education Department said they did not have information as to how many schools in the state have canceled classes because of the flu.

According to the most recent CDC data, Missouri is one of four states reporting widespread flu activity. Missouri has reported 16,487 flu cases this season as of Tuesday.