West Virginia legislators got a little more than they bargained for Thursday when a Joint Committee on Health meeting turned into a debate between a doctor and a mother.
Legislators first heard a presentation from Dr. William Mercer, Wheeling-Ohio County health officer, about the merits of vaccinations and why county health officers should continue to have the authority to review and grant medical exemptions for school-aged children's vaccinations. The authority was granted by the state Department of Health and Human Resources via a new interpretive rule.
After Mercer's talk, Wheeling resident and mother Becky Nau made a presentation about her dealings with the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department, telling legislators that health officers such as Mercer should not have the power to overrule children's physicians' recommendations that a child should not receive a particular vaccine.
A debate of sorts ensued after both had their say, leading to one of the committee members abruptly ending the meeting and suggesting Nau and Mercer continue their talks ''privately.''
After months of trying to meet the health department's requirements for a temporary medical exemption for her son, Nau said she finally discovered via research on the Internet that she could file an appeal with the state Department of Health and Human Resources to receive a permanent medical exemption. Nau said her son is allergic to egg and milk components in certain vaccines. The vaccine the health department wanted her son to receive, MMR, has a bovine component she said he had a reaction to during a skin test.
''My son is severely allergic ... he could die,'' Nau said.
Mercer said this particular request for an exemption was researched thoroughly, much like every other that comes across his desk.
''It's not like we're the big, bad health department. ... If it's not legitimate, we can't give it,'' Mercer said. "We try to make a decision based on the best medical science."
Mercer noted that while the boy ultimately had a reaction during the skin test, he believes it likely was not from the bovine component because it was so small. He believes it was something else, maybe a gelatin used in the vaccine.
This comment sparked a visceral reaction from Becky Nau and her husband, Joel, prompting a short verbal exchange between the Naus and Mercer and leading to the end of the meeting.
"A doctor and patient should make the decision. It should not be a man who has never met my son," Nau said.
Mercer said he fears if health officers do not continue to have the power to oversee medical exemptions, parents will seek out certain physicians who will easily grant their requests.
"Most physicians I've talked to are happy to let the health department be the bad guy," Mercer said.