Sep
22
2004

A controversy over the frequency of administering vaccines has been brewing across the country and came to a head this month in Maine, where one incident of alleged vaccine-related cancer sparked a statewide media frenzy that prompted a change in the state’s rabies vaccine requirement and licensing rule. It also may result in a new state law that would require veterinarians to disclose vaccine risks.

“The latest fallout [from this issue] is already national in terms of [the demand for] informed consent about vaccines, adverse reactions and protocols,” said Robert Gholson, DVM, state public health veterinarian. “This thing was like a forest fire out of control.”

The issue hit the local newspapers in the spring when a pet owner challenged the validity of the state’s vaccine requirement after her dog developed a cancerous tumor where the Labrador retriever received a rabies booster, according to local media. The owner described vaccines as “cash cows” for veterinarians and was quoted as saying “…in direct disregard of manufacturers’ recommendations, Maine veterinarians were routinely giving rabies vaccination boosters every two years rather than every three years.”

After the story ran in newspapers, Gholson fielded countless calls from pet owners, veterinarians and concerned citizens who were critical of veterinarians and the state rule. The licensing rule, which had been in place since 1981, required an immunization within the last two years to ensure that vaccines would be active through the next year, Gholson said. The rule has been changed to read that immunization has to be valid the day that an owner presents for licensing, Gholson said. The change was announced after a public hearing on Aug. 31 and is attributed to the rabies vaccination case, and the original rule’s wording, which allowed people to think that the state required two-year vaccinations, Gholson said. “The public does not understand that even if an immunization is valid today, maybe a week later it won’t be valid,” he cautioned.

The Maine legislature also may consider passing a law that would require veterinarians to disclose vaccine risk information to clients, similar to prescription consent forms and some immunizations in human health, Gholson said.

The Maine Veterinary Medical Association supports increased client education, but it would prefer to handle such communication on its own, said Bill Bryant, DVM, president of the Maine VMA. Before the bill is introduced, the association is sending members AAHA vaccine brochures and developing a consent form for owners in an attempt to sidestep legislation.

“Most veterinarians are not real keen on having the legislature get into the management of veterinary medicine,” Bryant said. “We are certainly in favor of greater disclosure, and by acting proactively, our goal is to eliminate the need for any legislation.”

Sen. Chris Hall (D-Maine) said he plans to introduce a bill in November that would require veterinarians to educate clients about the risks of vaccinating versus not vaccinating pets. He has been approached by colleagues who want to cosponsor the bill and expects it to be heard in February or March 2005. “I have had more email, calls and letters on animal vaccinations than any other subject except human healthcare,” Hall said. “Like most jurisdictions, Maine does not collect data on pet mortality or morbidity, so it is hard to form impartial judgments on the possible side effects of vaccination or over-vaccination, and of course, the veterinary community is divided on these issues. My concern, in the light of great popular interest, is not to require arbitrary rules governing vaccination, but to better inform the public.”

Hall said he would consider dropping the legislation if veterinarians educated their clients about the risks. “But I would want to be certain that all veterinarians are using a uniform, factually correct disclosure,” he noted.

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