SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the Utah anti-vaccine group Your Health Freedom marched Tuesday morning in downtown Salt Lake City and gathered at the Capitol to protest vaccines, a response to a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C., about the benefits of preventive medicine.
The hearing, titled "Vaccines Save Lives: What Is Driving Preventable Disease Outbreaks," was held Tuesday by the U.S. Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is one of 23 senators on the committee.
"We want our voices heard," said Kristen Chevrier, director of the anti-vaccine group. "We want people to know there can be vaccine injury and parents deserve the full, uncensored information and the ability to choose."
Chevrier said the group briefly watched part of the hearing on a live stream, but felt unrepresented and silenced because everyone who testified supported vaccines.
An Ohio teenager, who defied his anti-vaccine parents when he turned 18, was among those whotestified before Congress at the hearing Tuesday.
"I grew up under my mother's beliefs that vaccines are dangerous," Ethan Lindenberger told the committee, according to the Associated Press.
Last year, Lindenberger started receiving his missed vaccinations and he now wants people to know where to find accurate information and know how dangerous these diseases are, the Associated Press reported.
Recent outbreaks of measles have sparked discussion on mandating vaccines and pushed the anti-vaccine movement into the spotlight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Feb. 28, there have been 206 individual cases of measles confirmed in 11 states this year.
"I think that's probably a pretty good indicator that if you're not going to vaccinate, then we're going to see these diseases come back again," said Rich Lakin, immunization program manager at the Utah Department of Health.
But for Chevrier, she says getting a disease isn't as serious as it once was.
"In this day and age we have a lot of ways of treating illnesses that we didn't have when this was a huge issue — when mortality was a huge issue from these illnesses," Chevrier said. "I think there are great ways to treat illness now that we didn't have before."
Lakin disagreed, saying the risk of immunization paled in comparison to the risk of an outbreak of currently eradicated diseases.
"We're not hiding anything about that, we know there are some risks," Lakin said. "But the risks associated with receiving immunizations are far less than the risk of getting the disease itself."
Measles is very contagious, he explained. For example, Lakin said if 10 people were in a room with one person who had measles, it's likely that nine out of the 10 would contract the disease.
"That's how contagious it is," he stressed. "You would start having one out of every 10 people die from measles," he said.
Serious side-effects from vaccines are rare, he said, almost one in a million.
"Yes we understand there is a slight risk that comes with getting vaccinated but the risk is so small — one in every million vaccines that are given there could be a complication, not a death, a complication due to the vaccine," he said.
Multiple members of the group Tuesday shared personal experiences with what they said was the negative side of vaccines.
"We don't want mandated vaccines, we need freedom of choice because where's there a risk there needs to be a choice," said Kathleen Berrett, member of the Utah anti-vaccine group.
According to Berrett, her son, Colton Berrett, reacted negatively to a Gardasil HPV vaccination in 2014 when he was 13 years old.
She said shortly after the third dosage of the vaccine, he was diagnosed with idiopathic transverse myelitis. Colton became paralyzed from the neck down and was treated at Primary Children's Hospital.
He died about one year ago after he was removed from life support.
"The government shouldn't control what we have to put in our bodies because some of us have gene mutations that make it that we can't methylate heavy metals, like my son," Berrett said.
Before the death of her son, Berrett said she fully vaccinated her children. But since Colton's death, her other children have received vaccination exemptions.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services compensated the Berretts through the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program after a four-year petition for vaccine injury compensation. But Berrett said the money was "pennies in comparison to my son's life."
"It feels like a slap in the face because no amount of money is worth the life of your child," Berrett said.
According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, over 20,332 petitions have been filed with the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program since 1988 and the total compensation paid over the life of the program is approximately $4 billion.
Berrett said doctors told her they would report Colton's apparent reaction to the HPV vaccine to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, but she said doctors later told her they could neither confirm nor deny the vaccine was the cause of Colton's medical problems.
"The intention was totally good with vaccines," Chevrier said. "Community immunity is totally misunderstood, it doesn't work with vaccines because vaccines sometimes don't work for people at all … and it always wanes."
Lakin said herd immunity is proven effective and is necessary.
"A certain amount of the population should be vaccinated to protect those who can't get vaccinated," he said. "It is our responsibility to ensure that everybody is immunized and we're protecting that child who … can't get the immunization."
Babies under a year old, those with weak immune systems because of an illness like cancer, and the elderly are unable to receive vaccines.
"If you have 95 percent of the population vaccinated it prevents that measles virus — or any vaccine-prevented disease — from finding a host and then spreading throughout the community."
Some of the Utah protestors Tuesday said vaccines cause autism, something recent studies refute.
An autism-vaccine link has been debunked in the past, but is still cited by vaccine opponents. AP noted Tuesday that a 10-year study of more than 650,000 children born in Denmark found no risk of autism from the measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, vaccine.
According to the 2017 National Immunization Survey, Utah ranked 41 in the nation for the number of 2-year-olds who were fully immunized.
The CDC estimates that vaccination of children born between 1994 and 2013 will prevent 322 million illnesses, help avoid 732,000 deaths and save nearly $1.4 trillion in total societal costs.