Swearing in day

State Rep. David Zimmerman takes the oath of office in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2021. 

THE ISSUE

State Rep. David Zimmerman, a Republican from East Earl Township, has proposed House Bill 958, a bill he’s called the “Immunization Freedom Act.” Recently approved by the Pennsylvania House Health Committee, the bill would require pediatricians to continue to provide care to children whose parents insist on alternative vaccination schedules as long as the children receive at least one vaccine each calendar year. Pediatricians who don’t follow the bill’s mandates would be subject to administrative penalties.

“Consider the source” is an excellent piece of advice. So, for some context about the immunization bill proposed by Rep. Zimmerman, let’s revisit some of his history as an elected official.

In November, Zimmerman was among the lawmakers who took the side of those pushing baseless claims about the presidential election and sought to undermine the legitimacy of the Pennsylvania vote.

In 2018, Zimmerman was the lone member of the Lancaster County state House delegation to vote against legislation that was aimed at curbing domestic abusers’ access to firearms.

That same year, Zimmerman was found by the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission to have used his previous position as an East Earl Township supervisor to advance a land deal in which he and his brother had a financial stake.

Also in 2018, we learned that Zimmerman and his wife failed to follow East Earl Township ordinances when they rented out a suite in their home on Airbnb, and failed to pay county hotel room rental tax and excise taxes.

And because 2018 apparently was a banner year for the state lawmaker, it’s also when he proposed legislation that would have legalized ownership of sugar gliders and hedgehogs as pets in Pennsylvania.

Hedgehogs are prickly, noisy creatures that squeal, hiss, click, scream and grunt; sugar gliders are smelly, tiny, big-eyed marsupials with a tendency to bite.

Apparently not content with wanting children to own pets that could bite them and prick them with their sharp quills, Zimmerman now wants to endanger their health by undermining childhood vaccination.

Heed the experts

We checked Zimmerman’s bio on the state General Assembly website and noted that his background is in agribusiness, not medicine. And yet he’s proposing legislation that would dictate how pediatricians — trained in the medical care of children — would administer immunizations.

Maybe there ought to be a law against lawmakers proposing laws on matters they know nothing about.

Elizabeth Imboden, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician and a member of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She is chair of pediatrics at WellSpan York Hospital and associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Drexel University and Penn State College of Medicine.

So Dr. Imboden knows quite a lot about childhood immunization. And in a column published in the Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline Perspective section, Imboden wrote that House Bill 958, if passed, “would force health care practitioners to practice outside of the accepted standards of care. It would discourage science-based vaccine education delivered by medical professionals. And it would label providers who stand firm in their commitment to evidence-based medicine as ‘unprofessional.’ ”

For the record, Imboden has been a pediatrician for more than 20 years — roughly three times as long as Zimmerman has been a state lawmaker.

On the subject of childhood vaccination, Pennsylvanians should heed what she says — not the representative from East Earl Township.

‘Most effective tool’

As Imboden put it, “The prevention of disease through use of immunizations has been the triumph of modern medicine. In fact, vaccines are the most effective tool we have against childhood disease.”

Imboden noted that the “spread of disinformation about vaccines has led some parents to be hesitant, or even resistant, to getting their children vaccinated. Questioning childhood vaccination schedules is part of this.”

She pointed out “what vaccines are most effectively given when is not opinion, or whimsy, and cannot be subject to arbitrary changes. The decisions on vaccine schedules and timing are based on decades of evidence, and seek to target the most susceptible individuals at their most vulnerable stages of life. The schedule has been crafted over years to maximize the benefit and minimize potential harms.”

The rigorously studied immunization schedules are endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Any potential deviation from the standard schedule should only be considered through careful, shared decision-making, not as a mandate,” Imboden wrote.

And she made this important point: “ ‘Alternative’ schedules have not been proven to be effective. Immunity may not be achieved. Parents need to know this.”

Dangerous bill

Vaccines have proven to be safe and lifesaving. But anti-vaccination forces seek to plant seeds of doubt about immunization on social media by encouraging parents to question the immunization schedules. It’s an insidious step toward full-blown vaccination resistance.

In a recent article, WITF health reporter Brett Sholtis paraphrased a Pittsburgh pediatrician who said that legislation like Zimmerman’s is “part of a larger ecosystem of misinformation. People post false things online. Others believe them. Eventually, they bring their concerns to politicians.”

But politicians, like all of us, should sort out legitimate concerns from unfounded ones.

According to the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the doctors Sholtis interviewed, “almost every sentence in the bill is based on misinformation.” Those doctors expressed concern to Sholtis that lawmakers like Zimmerman are “giving voice to anti-science ideas that affect what happens in their exam rooms.”

Zimmerman’s proposed bill would “prohibit doctors from charging parents for time spent discussing the merits of getting their child immunized” and would prevent insurers from “financially incentivizing pediatric clinics to follow CDC guidelines,” Sholtis reported.

It also would “ban pediatricians from limiting the hours when they see the children of non-immunization-compliant parents in order to keep those children away from at-risk patients,” he noted. “If the bill were made into law, a doctor who failed to follow the rules could be brought up before a medical board for ‘unprofessional conduct.’ ”

So, to be clear, Zimmerman’s bill would force pediatricians to see children who aren’t immunized against infectious childhood diseases during the same hours as children with cancer or otherwise compromised immune systems or infants too young to be vaccinated — potentially imperiling those vulnerable children. It would allow a pediatrician to set up a separate waiting room for children on alternative immunization schedules, but what if a pediatrician’s office doesn’t have the space? And why, if Zimmerman is certain that alternative vaccination schedules are perfectly safe, did he allow for such separation?

His proposed bill is absurd. And dangerous.

And, sad to say, par for the course for Rep. Zimmerman.

He has dubbed his bill the “Immunization Freedom Act,” but it only would give vaccine-preventable infectious diseases more freedom to spread and cause needless harm.

“Physicians and other licensed medical practitioners are the best sources of truth when it comes to immunizations,” Dr. Imboden wrote. “Not Google, Facebook, Instagram or YouTube. And not legislators.”

The pediatrician issued this plea to lawmakers: “Don’t let this legislation impede us from our No. 1 priority — keeping all children healthy and safe.”

We join Dr. Imboden in asking members of the state Legislature to ensure that House Bill 958 is quashed like the harmful virus it is.

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